Rouhanifard: Slow and Steady Progress in Camden School System

December 17, 2015 | Education, Politics
Camden Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard says change has been slow but steady.

All New Jersey’s public schools share one distinction: Low scores on the controversial PARCC tests. About half of our students aren’t working at grade level, but by far the most dismal PARCC scores released today were in Camden. They show that at best eight percent of Camden students are proficient in English/Language Arts and Math. At worst, one percent. Only three percent are proficient in Algebra I. In Geometry and Algebra II it’s one percent. Paymon Rouhanifard took over as superintendent of the struggling district just two years ago.

Williams: Why do you think Camden PARCC scores are so low?

Rouhanifard: Well it certainly affirms what we’ve know. The news is sobering, but we have been grappling with numerous challenges in Camden for decades as it relates to the school system. We’re working hard to improve the system, but we’re not necessarily surprised by the news. It’s sobering. I do think it’s important to note that PARCC is important. It is a measure, but it is not the measure of student achievement here in Camden. We think about multiple measures of how our students and our schools are doing and we do see signs of progress.

Williams: Even Newark, which is also under state control, is getting around 20 percent proficiency scores. What are you doing to address the achievement gap?

Rouhanifard: Well a number of different things. Let me first point out that the on the old New Jersey Ask exam Newark performed about 15 to 20 points better than Camden, and that had been the case for a very, very long time. So in a lot of ways things haven’t changed much. Now we have to continue pushing hard to see progress. In terms of what we’re doing, we have a strategic plan that we built alongside our community. I have done over 70 public town hall meetings and we have five key promises in our strategic plan focused on safer students, better quality facilities, higher quality instruction, more family engagement and a more effective central office. We just have to stay the course because we will began to see steady improvement, but it’s not going to happen overnight.

Williams: How do this year’s QSAC assessment scores compare to those from 2012?

Rouhanifard: That’s a good question. We just recently announced our QSAC results, which is both an annual process and once every three-years you do a more comprehensive review. That’s what you’re alluding to. What we’re seeing, in the same way that we’re seeing in other measures in Camden, is slow and steady progress. So across the five, there are five indicators in QSAC, and we’re seeing significant improvement in governance. We almost doubled our score from 2012, and in other areas we are seeing either a slight decline or slight improvement. So you know net on balance, we’re seeing steady improvement. I think the most important part of that process is that we were very honest in our self assessment. Where we assessed us is ultimately where the state also assessed us to be. I think that’s very critical as well.

Williams: So what does that mean for the district?

Rouhanifard: What it means for the district is, one in order to grapple with the challenges that we are faced with, we have to be clear eyed on what they are. When we did our self-assessment for QSAC, our ultimate, the state’s ultimate assessment, was very much in line with our self-assessment. If you look at previous years in Camden, the self-assessment was significantly higher than the state assessment, so they weren’t always as cleared eyed. The administration was not always as clear eyed about the challenges, so that’s step one. Step two is we just stay the course. We have our strategic plan. We are going to continue to engage with our community, and we’re going to continue to see progress. But again, there are no silver bullets in this work. We inherited decades and decades of challenges. So, it’s not an overnight success story, and we do see signs of progress from our graduation rate increasing every year since I have been appointed. We have a record number of students enrolled in pre-K, and I think that’s really a great leading indicator of success. So, we’re going to stay the course.

Williams: You referred to it earlier, but how do you enlist parents and the community in the effort to help kids succeed and help teachers succeed for that matter?

Rouhanifard: It begins by tearing down the roadblocks. For a very long time, we heard stories about how the central office wasn’t always the most responsive. Phone calls went unanswered, there were numerous roadblocks like having to pay a significant fee to become a volunteer to give a background check. We can do things as small as waiving that fee and reimbursing families. Bigger initiatives such as building three new parent centers in geographically diverse parts of the city, we’ve hired a community school coordinator at every single school, and that wasn’t the case before my appointment. Those individuals are tasked to work alongside families and build roots in the community and to support our parents.

Williams: And what’s been the reaction in the community and from the community?

Rouhanifard: The reaction from the community has been really positive. I mean, this is really, really hard work. I think when you go about turning around a school district like Camden, you have to, again, be really clear-eyed about your challenges and to talk about it openly and honestly. So humanizing the work I think is really critical and is why we have been so open and transparent with our town hall meetings in the way that we have because change is hard. Ultimately this is about change management. I would say that our families have been receptive, but it’s also not to say that every last person in Camden agrees because again, change is hard. But we just have to continue to stay the course, have an open, honest dialogue and make the hard decisions with children at the root of every single one of those decisions.