‘Camden Commitment’ Will Soon Face Big Test with Revamped Enrollment Rules

John Mooney | October 2, 2015 | Education
School chief’s reform plan will include ‘universal’ system similar to one that met dissent inNewark

Fatimah Shakir, a Camden parent, speaking with School Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard about his latest strategic plan for the district.
Camden Schools Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard this week unveiled his latest strategic plan for the state-run district – the second phase of his “Camden Commitment” — including additional training for educators and a push for modernized buildings.

But perhaps more significant is that, starting next year, Camden families will sign in to a single enrollment system run by the district that will distribute students across the city, be it to neighborhood schools, nearly a dozen charter schools, or the new hybrid “renaissance schools.”

The idea is to streamline a process that now has families registering in individual schools.

But it may not be smooth sailing. The plan for universal enrollment immediately brings to mind what happened in Newark, another state-run school district, where the “One Newark” enrollment system sparked protests and even defiance.

Rouhanifard and his staff have stressed this enrollment plan is not “One Camden.”

“The idea is single enrollment, but it is very much predicated on community feedback,” Rouhanifard said in in an interview, noting the many community meetings he and his staff have held. “We don’t want choice for choice sake, but instead are placing tremendous value on neighborhood schools as well.”

But it remains to be seen how the new enrollment will work – and whether it’s accepted by the community.

Will all the charter schools sign up to be part of a common enrollment? How exactly will families choose those schools, and where how will it fit in with the ever-perilous – and expensive – issue of transportation?

And will it serve all families and schools equally? That question was behind much of the discord over the “One Newark” plan.

Rouhanifard said details are still being worked out, and the hope is to have the system in place this winter for next fall’s enrollment. He said he can’t guarantee that every charter school will sign on, but he expects at least most of them will take part.

The primary aim, the superintendent said, is to have an equitable system.

“We want to streamline the process that is fair and equitable,” he said. “That is what is most important.”

Rouhanifard added: “It is important that every school be part of the process. I think we’ll get a majority of them, and I hope to get all.”

While it’s natural to make comparisons to Newark, there are clear differences. Camden is a far different city in terms of both its size and its politics. And Rouhanifard, who formerly worked in the Newark schools himself, seems to been more successful in engaging the public than his former boss in Newark, the controversial Cami Anderson.

“One Newark” was ultimately part of Anderson’s undoing, leading to her sudden departure from the school district this summer. Community members protested that the new enrollment system was favoring charter schools over district schools. And many wondered how the school-selection process even worked.

But Camden isn’t without its doubts and questions.

Moneke Ragsdale, a parent and longtime community activist – and an organizer with Save Our Schools New Jersey — said the district already adjusted its enrollment system this year with opening of the new “renaissance schools.” Ragsdale said that led to a fair amount of confusion and she’s worried about an altogether new system being put in place next year.

“It’s going to be a huge problem,” she said yesterday. “I think when (Rouhanifard) says this came from community input, he’s getting that confused with parents complaining about this year. When parents complain about the enrollment system, it’s not necessarily that that they want single enrollment.”

Still, other families see some benefit in the shift. Shirley Irizarry, a mother of two and herself a product of Camden schools, spoke on behalf of the plan at this week’s presentation.

Both of her children are in the charter school Freedom Prep, and she said even with charter schools, there isn’t any easy path to registration. “The information is not readily available,” she said.

While her children attend charters, Irizarry said she would not endorse a system that favored those schools. What’s critical, she said, is that there are options available

“What’s important is we have a choice,” she said.