Profile: The Right Stuff to Take Camden’s Schools to Next Level — and Beyond

Carly Sitrin | January 17, 2019 | Profiles
Acting Superintendent Katrina McCombs already has plans in place to address Camden’s myriad problems — from gang violence to trauma — but she also needs the top spot

Katrina McCombs
Who: Katrina McCombs

Age: 49

Town: Woolwich Township

Family: Married, two daughters

What she does: Acting superintendent of Camden City School District, actively campaigning for the permanent spot.

“I’ve been in the district for 25 years as an educator,” McCombs said, “but I was born and raised here as well, so for me this is just a natural progression to other ways I can have an influence on students across the city in a positive way.”

How she got there: McCombs said she is a proud product of the Camden school system, attending Mickle School, Bonsall Elementary School, Cooper’s Poynt Family School, and Hatch Middle School, before graduating from Camden High School in 1987.

McCombs then attended Lehigh University where she earned a bachelor’s degree in Behavioral science and Neuroscience and put it to work in Camden as an early childhood educator.

But McCombs she felt she was having trouble giving her students “what they needed to be prepared for the next grade, because of some of the traumatic experiences they had faced even at five and six years old.”

Students were dealing with serious issues in their home lives, including abject poverty, substance abuse, absentee parents, and in some cases, physical or psychological abuse.

After spending two years in the field, McCombs went back to school to earn her MA and MA Ed. in psychological counseling at Teachers College, Columbia University, and became a child therapist.

From there, her career in education took off: She moved up the ranks at Lanning Square Elementary School, from grade level chair to literacy coach, site facilitator, vice principal, and finally principal. She then earned a Masters of Public Administration in educational leadership from Rutgers University, which she used to move from Lanning Square to serve as director of the district’s Early Childhood Department, where she led Camden’s record levels of pre-K enrollment. She then spent four years as deputy superintendent of schools before taking over for former Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard who stepped down in April of last year.

Her plan for Camden: With deep roots in Camden’s community, McCombs said she is ready to bring about the kind of change that will not only capitalize on the successes of her predecessor, but also will put the district in a good position to return to local control and stay there. During Rouhanifard’s five-year tenure, student achievement metrics and graduation rates improved substantially, the dropout rate dropped by half, and the number of schools on the list of New Jersey’s worst-performing shrank from 23 down to eight (out of 26 schools all told).

Hoping to keep the momentum going, McCombs has revealed her strategic plan for Camden, titled “Putting Students First,” which lays out what she said are measurable and achievable goals for the district.

Her main areas of focus include upgrading the facilities and buildings, which in some cases are more than 80 years old; recruiting and retaining talented teachers who reflect the ethnic makeup of Camden’s classrooms; working to close the achievement gap by providing personalized and supportive plans to guide students from pre-K to high school and beyond; and raising graduation rates, reducing absenteeism, and improving state test scores. Tactics will include offering personalized, self-paced reading and math programs for all students, expanding Algebra I to all eighth-grade students, and staffing schools with “attendance officers” to improve attendance and support families.

She also has released a corrective action plan to restructure the district’s business office and create more accountability in the schools’ finances and accounting records, which have historically skirted the New Jersey Public Schools Contracts Law.

The challenges of Camden: As McCombs learned early on, the challenges facing Camden’s students are unique, systemic, and far reaching. Gang influence, absent fathers, pervasive racism and poverty create very real barriers to learning that McCombs said need to be taken into account when drafting any kind of educational plan for Camden.

In addition to the personal hurdles facing students at home, McCombs said structural issues in Camden schools present more complications. In some cases, emergency budget funds are being used to repair or patch problems as they arise. She raised the example of a temporary boiler at Woodrow Wilson High School that was installed a couple of years ago. When it started acting up, students had to be displaced and classes were interrupted until the problem could be addressed.

“This is something that happens on a regular basis. It’s not as regular as it used to be, but it’s still happening more often than it should.”

The importance of choice: Taking those challenges into account, McCombs said it is crucial that all of her work be collaborative. She kicked off her strategic plan with a 60-day “Listen and Learn” community engagement trip around the district that included more than 500 parents, teachers, community members, and other stakeholders. She took what she heard at those meetings and incorporated the comments into the first page of the strategic plan.

“The idea of parents being able to figure out what works best for them when it comes to educating their child is super important and something that has to be valued and respected,” she said.

Parents can be extremely passionate about their children, McCombs said, which can often come across as anger or frustration with a school district that hasn’t always supported its students the way other public school districts across the state have. But at the end of the day, she said, parents know their kids’ needs best and should get a say in the type of school they attend.

That’s why choosing between neighborhood public schools, charter schools, and renaissance schools (a charter-district hybrid that oversees eight schools in the city) is crucial to what McCombs sees as a vital balance. She said she intends to strengthen the partnerships among the three types of schools and create citywide activities like arts programs and sporting events, recreating a neighborhood school feel even if more students are choosing not to attend their local public schools.

Even as enrollment shifts more toward charters and renaissance schools, which more than half of Camden students attend, McCombs said she is committed to making sure all schools are equipped to give their students access to the best education possible.

“The challenge that this presents us is to figure out how to continue to deliver high-quality education to students in traditional public schools, while we know that there is an enrollment shift and some funding shifts over as the enrollment moves,” McCombs said. “Budgetarily, it causes us to have to be very tight.”

QSAC and local control: But McCombs is still faced with one looming challenge six years in the making: returning to local control. The exact timeline, she said, isn’t as important as making sure the change sticks.

“We are closer to local control than we’ve ever been before,” she said but cautioned there are still ongoing discussions with the county superintendent and state department of education. “In order for us to soar, we need to make sure we’re getting the basics in place … when we receive local control, it will be sustainable and that’s my only concern. I don’t want us to go through whiplash as a district and end up having to go into state intervention again. It’s not good for the students that we serve.”

But to get to that point, the district is going to have to get its Quality Single Accountability Continuum (QSAC) scores up to snuff. In its latest QSAC district performance review, Camden only scored 23 percent in its instruction and programing section — a vast improvement over its 9 percent score in the 2011-2012 school year. Still, Camden has a long way to go to reach the state-set benchmarks of 80 percent in all categories.

But officials wrote in their report on the scores that the evaluation is only a snapshot in time and “in many cases, ratings do not reflect incremental growth and progress” in student achievement data and curriculum work.

Recently, QSAC has come under attack. Many school officials in the state argue that it’s a method for New Jersey to take over underperforming districts and maintain control without providing a plan to move them back to local control.

McCombs said she is working closely with the Commissioner of Education Lamont Repollet to make local control happen and she said while QSAC is a cumbersome lift, it is the tool that she can use to help her get there.