Almost five years on the job, Camden school superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard announced unexpectedly last week that he will step down from the state-appointed post at the end of the school year. By most accounts, he has helped shepherd significant improvements for the district and its children since former Gov. Chris Christie named him to lead the state’s fourth takeover district in 2013. Yet by his own admission, steep challenges remain.
Rouhanifard spoke with NJ Spotlight this weekend about the lessons learned and the obstacles that remain. He spoke candidly about why he’s leaving, what surprised him in the job, what worked and what didn’t, and what he might have done differently. In one segment, he had surprising things to say about the testing focus that dominates so many New Jersey schools, not just in Camden. And he was unapologetic about the new and prominent role of charter and Renaissance schools in his city.
Question: So tell me the genesis of your decision to leave.
Answer: I just felt it was the right time. It has been an ongoing conversation with my wife, and there was not any one reason. But three of them would be that we have made meaningful progress in Camden; I wanted to spend more time with my family; and third, I will always be the face of the state takeover, and I do believe it is important for me to transition the work to a leader, ideally local who comes from Camden, to carry the work forward. I didn’t feel it would be right for me to stay on forever and ever.
Q: Was there any doubt that Gov. Phil Murphy would reappoint you?
A: I have another year on my contract, and I had never felt there was any doubt. Obviously, whenever there is a new administration, there is some degree of ambiguity. But as soon as we started meeting and talking with him and his staff, I quickly realized he is a very practical leader, understands there is real progress here, and also I feel the work we had done in taking a third-way approach very much resonates with this governor.
The governor called me when he got the news and said, “You did a hell of a job.” He was very helpful and supportive.
Q: Do you worry you have left the task unfinished?
A: Not at all. I feel great about the foundation we have built. Obviously, we have a long way to go, but I wouldn’t say I have any regrets about the work that we’ve done and led. It is clearly important that we transition so that this work is sustainable, and whoever the next superintendent is, can build upon the progress we’ve made.
In some respects, a huge part of our effort is positioned to be sustainable. When you think about the high-quality Renaissance Schools (a charter-district hybrid that oversees eight schools in the city), you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube. Those are schools that have already over a thousand students and families who have supported and advocated for it. You can’t unwind that.
Q: What are your biggest accomplishments?
A: What I am most proud of is we built coalitions of support to make difficult decisions in the best interest of children. Just being out in the community and building trust, I’d say I’m most proud of that. Maybe that sounds trite and hokey to some people, but I think it is so critical to show that — to prove that — difficult decisions very much can benefit a city and community.
To this day, no matter what part of the city I walk into, I know all the key community leaders, the faith-based leaders, and at this point I recognize many of the students and the parents. I’m really going to miss that. I was an assistant coach for Camden High School basketball, and I’m really proud I got to spend time with students one on one in a way I never foresaw happening as superintendent. It meant the world to me.
Lessons learned in Newark
Q: What did you learn from your experience in Newark, where you were previously an administrator and witnessed some struggles in implementing reforms?
A: You can’t just be a technocratic leader about this work. That is something that can be applied to all strata of government, and not just Newark and not just education. As policymakers, we lose sight that we have to win over hearts and minds, too. Even if we do have all the right answers, you have to meet people where they are. I wouldn’t say we got a 10 out of 10 in Camden, far from it, but I would say that was one takeaway from Newark and also my prior post in New York City schools.
Q: What has surprised you most in terms of the challenges?
A: If I go back to the first year, it was really a complete change in mindset about the challenges we had inherited, rooted in poverty and borne out of centuries of injustice. It was how a great lesson plan and focus on test scores are not nearly sufficient, and how trauma and toxic stress are in so many respects at the root of our work inside of schools.
It’s important we not lower the bar in terms of academic expectations, but at the same time it was recognizing that we need to take a trauma-informed approach to this work, recognizing we need better mental health services, recognizing no two children have the same exact needs. The student needs and family needs were far, far steeper than I had realized.
Q: When did that hit you?
A: I learned it from community leaders, but certainly it was also in my interactions with students and families, doing home visits. I have been at eight student funerals in a little less than five years here, eight funerals, and I haven’t even made all of them.
Q: In terms of instruction, there is still a huge gap in student performance in Camden. You talk about doubling or tripling passing rates, but we’re still talking in the teens in terms of proficiency rates. That’s still four out of five kids reading or doing math at below grade level. How do you speak to that?
A: We have made meaningful progress, but it is still not enough. It is critical for us to hold a high bar for kids. But one of my realizations has been that I don’t believe tests tell you a whole lot or at least as much as I thought coming in.
I personally think of testing as more a way to measure systems and less a way of measuring schools and teachers. We want to push our students, but in Camden, we have ultimately placed resources into non-instructional elements of schooling: family coordinators, deans of culture and climate, behavioral specialists, and now we are looking at building mental health clinics.
Q: Do we put too much emphasis on test scores?
A: In terms of federal policies and state policies, yes, without question. When you really zoom out and examine how we go about testing, we are mostly valuing a test in two subjects in six grade levels, Grades three to eight. And that’s it.
You measure what you value, and right now, we are saying that the only two things we value are literacy and math. Yes, literacy and math are in many respects the foundations, but at the same time, it strikes me as peculiar that in the state of New Jersey, we have one high school science exam. I’m a little biased because my wife is a scientist, but we are essentially saying we don’t value science, we don’t value the arts. I think that’s a problem.
Q: Speak to how the district has changed in terms of enrollment. Some would say you have given up the district to charters or set the city on a path to do that. More than half of students are now in charters or Renaissance Schools. Some would complain the neighborhood schools that have been here forever have been left with fewer students overall and more of them with greater needs.
A: First, I would contest saying more troubled kids are in district schools. That isn’t true. In terms of the Renaissance Schools, actually many of their special education enrollments are higher than district schools.
But let me zoom out. I totally get the point being raised, but we have made indisputable progress within our district schools. You can’t dispute our dropout rate going from 22 percent to 11 percent, or our catastrophically high suspension rates being cut in half. Or our proficiency rates meaningfully growing. Those things are real.
Q: Nonetheless, there is now a majority of Camden students in schools that are run by charter organizations not necessarily rooted or accountable to Camden.
A: There is a tradeoff there. You have independent, self-perpetuating, nonprofit (charter) boards that in my mind create a learning organization that can get better over time and not have to deal with political retribution when they make mistakes.
Q: But the flip side of politics is accountability and civic engagement.
A: This is a city where there has been a palpable sense of disenfranchisement for a very long time. That is real here. But I personally believe that tradeoff makes better sense for students and families, because I don’t think there is anything more disenfranchising than a kid who doesn’t finish high school.
Q: Do you see the district going all charter, such as happened in New Orleans?
A: I don’t think that will happen. I think they may continue to grow, but that growth has slowed. We are not quite at a stable state now, but we are close. There will always be a place for traditional schools, especially at the high school level. There is actually a state of too much choice, which creates systems of winners and losers.
Q: What’s next for you?
A: I’ll take some time off and weigh my options. I won’t be a superintendent. I’ve been doing this (in administration) for 10 years, and I want to get away from it. The rapid response, the 24/7 job. It’s a little bit grueling.