Fine Print: Camden Superintendent’s “Listening Tour” Addresses School Woes

John Mooney | December 19, 2013 | Education
New state-appointed leader details feedback from community as prelude to unveiling strategic plan for 2014

Camden High School.
What it is: Camden Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard, appointed by Gov. Chris Christie three months ago, reported Tuesday on what he gleaned from four community town halls and another eight smaller meetings held around the city with teachers, parents, students, and other residents to hear their concerns about the public schools.

The school chief’s presentation touched on everything from lagging instructional standards to inadequate safety in school buildings to the district’s 50 percent high-graduation rate – and even the fact that only three Camden students scored high enough on the SATs last year to meet one measure of “college readiness.”

What it means: The presentation is expected to be the foundation of Rouhanifard’s strategic plan, which was slated to be released 100 days into his tenure and is now expected to be presented in mid-January.

The presentation came on the same day that Newark schools Superintendent Cami Anderson started rolling out her own plans for a sweeping restructuring of that city’s state-run schools, prompting speculation about whether Rouhanifard has similar ideas for Camden.

Where: The presentation – complete with video – was shown at Tuesday’s meeting of the Camden local advisory board.

Three main themes: The 17-slide PowerPoint presentation detailed the meetings held over the last three months — more than 200 people attended the town halls alone — and highlighted the results of each one. Each meeting focused on three broad themes that are central to Rouhanifard’s strategic plan: teaching and learning, school safety and community engagement.

Students first: The voice of students is always a strong indication of whether a school system is healthy or not. In Camden, the results were sobering, Rouhinfard said. When he met in October with student leaders, he said, their prime complaints were about the condition of school buildings and lack of access to technology, but they also cited as disheartening the “low expectations of teachers” for their students. A separate survey found one-half of elementary school students felt unsafe in their own schools.

Parents, too: Parents also cited concerns about safety, as well as the need for school options, better facilities, more opportunities for parent engagement and more responsive school officials. More than 90 percent of parents said they would be willing to serve on the Superintendent’s Parent Roundtable.

Staff not left out: Teachers cited their own concerns, including lack of time to plan for lessons, disparities in pay, and a lack of curriculum and instruction support. More than 40 percent of teachers said they’d serve on the superintendent’s planned teacher roundtable.

School choice: In the written presentation, at least, there was not a lot about charter schools and school choice, which are sure to be at least part of Rouhinfard’s strategic plan.

But the district is already the site of the inaugural test of a new hybrid model that could conceivably result in the opening of more than a dozen independently-run charter schools in the next five years. And charter schools and their management of low-performing buildings are a key part of the plan being unveiled this week for Newark schools.

Bottom line: Rouhinfard also presented the district’s achievement results for 2012-2013 – and those results showed there is basically just direction one direction for the district to go.

With a graduation rate of barely 50 percent, just three students in all of the city’s high schools scored well enough on the SATs to be deemed “college ready” by the measure of the College Board. Only one of six high schools in the city – including two charters – saw improvement from the year before.