Op-Ed: Camden’s Next School Superintendent Must Build on Predecessor’s Success

Sean M. Brown | April 20, 2018 | Opinion
The district is smaller, the politics has changed, but we still need to address major education challenges in New Jersey’s poorest city

Sean M. Brown
In 2007 I attended a Camden school board meeting for the first time. I was motivated to go there and express concerns, disturbed by my observations as a guest for career day in one of the high schools. Three years later, I was appointed to that school board, no longer an activist, but as one of nine people responsible for governance of then 27 schools and over 18,000 students.

Now as a parent of two boys — one that was in a district school under the exiting state-appointed superintendent Paymon Rounhanifard’s tenure — an active community member, frequent attendee of the school advisory board meetings, and former school board member, I submit my priorities for student success during this political and local leadership shift. The next superintendent will find a smaller district and new governor and commissioner of education whose education ideologies don’t match those of the reformers that selected Paymon in 2013.

The state and local education community are urged to keep, tweak, and increase the current progress. Among successful initiatives under Paymon’s leadership were lowering student suspensions, ensuring every student has the ability and funding to take the SATs, getting students admitted into Ivy League and other top-notch universities, introducing a new gifted and talented program pilot in elementary schools, offering a supportive central office for parents to bring concerns, establishing a tech-friendly process for registering students in all the public schools (known as Camden Enrollment), and modernizing parent engagement and support programs.

In New Jersey’s poorest city, issues remain that need immediate attention. To address ongoing issues that impact student learning, I recommend the next superintendent, who will start in July, focus on the following:

  • Local control matters. With strong QSAC scores submitted to the state and a new mayor about to make his first appointments to the board, it is time for the process for local control to be expedited. Camden is the only district in New Jersey with both an appointed — not elected — and advisory — nonvoting — school board. No matter how awesome the next superintendent may be, local oversight with community and parental input is critical to the ultimate success of students and the city overall.
  • Special-education students still need updated and well implemented Individualized Education Programs, with a pathway out. The district also should re-examine the evaluation process and match classroom inclusion with adequate training and teacher support in the classroom.
  • Aggressively recruit teachers and central-office staff that have education experience and energy, as well as knowledge about pedagogy, urban culture, and the impact generational poverty has on learning. Preparing urban youth is about way more than teaching grit; it’s about preparing the people most impacted by system-level decisions to be empowered to influence them. That starts with students understanding the history and context for how and why cities like Camden exist and what strategies can improve social conditions.
  • Classroom norms and expectations (e.g., teacher raises hand, entire class quickly gets quiet) should be brought to every district school and classroom. All students and teachers deserve a positive learning environment that includes mutual respect and effective discipline.
  • The next superintendent should put a moratorium on charter or renaissance school growth. It’s slowed down in the last year, but it should now stop. And, to the reformers and the organizations that claim to advocate for students but blindingly support the unregulated expansion of charter or renaissance schools, must instead truly help establish recommendations or technical support for implementing the ideas numbered above for district schools. All students matter. If helping students by fixing what’s broken in traditional schools is not their true mission, they should get out of the way and stop wasting their donors’ money by pretending to do something.
  • With that said, I wish Paymon Rouhanifard and his beautiful family well. More important than my own opinion of his successful time in Camden, the future will judge by way of student outcomes and their success. That will be the most important indicator of his time here.