With Some Gains in Camden Schools, Local Control Is Put on the Table

John Mooney | December 9, 2016 | Education
State-appointed superintendent says some autonomy may be seen ‘sooner than later’

Credit: NJTV
Camden superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard
The state’s decades-old school takeovers in Newark and Paterson, and to some extent Jersey City, still raise questions about when these districts will be allowed to function autonomously. To date, however, Camden has been left out of the discussion as the new kid on the block.

After all, it was just three years ago that Gov. Chris Christie announced the takeover of what was then one of the lowest-performing districts in New Jersey.

But Camden has to some degree come back, under the guidance of state-appointed superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard and the fast growth of new charter and renaissance schools. That’s led to some open discussion about how long the state’s intervention will last.

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Rouhanifard came before the State Board of Education this week to give his annual report a mostly upbeat presentation that highlighted gains in both the district and the new renaissance schools, a hybrid charter school that operates separately from the district.

Afterward, the superintendent said in an interview that he has spoken with state officials about Camden not becoming another Paterson or Newark, both now in their third decade of state control.

“This will not and should not be a lengthy intervention,” Rouhanifard said. “This should not be 20 years.”

He did not put a timetable on when the state may return local control, but said he expects changes to be made piecemeal, with some moves within a couple of years and fuller control possible within “five to seven years.”

“How long, we don’t know,” Rouhanifard said. “But I’ve raised the prospect of some local control sooner than later.”

A number of factors will go into that decision, including a state monitoring process that has continued to highlight stark deficiencies in the district’s operation. The most recent report from a year ago found that the district had yet to meet any of the necessary benchmarks in the five key categories, from instruction to budget.

In the key area of instruction and programs, for instance, the district had met only 11 percent of the requirements, many of them focused on student achievement. The district was closer on other areas like fiscal management and governance, but still well short in areas such as personnel and operations.

Rouhanifard on Wednesday acknowledged steep challenges still ahead.

“By almost every measures possible, we’re better off today than we were three years ago,” he said. “But we still have a long way to go,” a comment he repeated several times during the interview.

Rouhanifard’s presentation to the board focused on the gains, citing how fewer students are in the lowest-performing schools, noting that the renaissance schools have made sizable gains.

But the deficiencies are still readily apparent. Even at the Uncommon Schools network of renaissance schools, so far the most successful, just 27 percent of the students were meeting state standards in language arts and 17 percent in math.

The presentation before the board drew a handful of Camden community leaders and activists, with a few saying afterward that the state’s intervention still has much to prove.

“More has to be done,” said Bryan Morton, a father of three and executive director of Parents for Great Camden Schools. “The data shows 63 percent of students still sit in schools that are underperforming or not on level. While we have had some significant gains and a good share are in higher-performing schools, we can’t ignore those who are being left behind.”