When Paymon Rouhanifard was appointed by Gov. Chris Christie as superintendent of Camden public schools, questions quickly arose as to not only his plans for what is arguably New Jersey’s most troubled district but also his experience and credentials to lead the state’s fourth district takeover.
Just 32 years old and with only six years of education experience in New York City and Newark, Rouhanifard knew that he would face an uphill climb in both the politics and the policy of turning around a district where less than a third of students pass the state’s proficiency tests.
Almost a month on the job and week into the school year, Rouhanifard sat down with NJ Spotlight for 90 minutes yesterday to talk about his plans and his challenges. The following are some key areas and priorities that he touched on.
Rouhanifard has spent much of the first week visiting schools and starting to get to know the city he’s lived in for all of a month. His next step is to develop over the next 100 days what he called a comprehensive plan for both the operation of the district and the outreach to the community.
“First and foremost, I’m listening and evaluating right now,” he said.
In terms of what will be in that plan, he’s not saying yet, but he put an emphasis on basic efficiencies and what he called the “infrastructure” of the district, from its data management to its human resources.
“Not everything is working as it should,” he said. “It’s not to say every last effort has failed -- there are talented educators here who I have met -- but across the board and comprehensively speaking, people acknowledge that we need to implement dramatic changes.”
And he spoke often of school safety, some of which is already being addressed in collaboration with Camden police.
“Safety is a huge priority, a basic condition we must have in our schools,” he said. “We have safety plans that haven’t been updated since 2006 . . . There is clearly work to be done. We did a survey and less than half of the students said they feel safe in the hallways and bathrooms [of their schools].”
While he has said that hiring new top management is also a priority, he wouldn’t divulge much as to who was staying or going from the previous administration. About 50 central office staff are already gone, and most of his assistant superintendents were essentially let go during the takeover.
One certainty, he said, was holding onto Margaret “Peggy” Nicolosi, a former county superintendent who led the transition and served as interim superintendent until Rouhanifard’s appointment.
Before he started, Rouhanifard benefited from a massive effort by state and local teams over the summer to get the schools up and running for the fall, including the purchase of new materials and technology -- textbooks were more than $5 million alone -- and getting schedules and personnel in order for at least the start of the year.
Where previously there were more than 70 vacancies at the start of the year, there were none this year, he said.
Rouhanifard is used to the questions by now, and faced them in his previous jobs in Newark and New York City. After all, he had just two years of experience as a teacher, and then four years in investment banking before serving as a top innovation officer in New York City for three years and then a year in Newark under its state-appointed superintendent, Cami Anderson.
The questions came quickly in Camden, too, when the state Board of Education moved to confirm him in an unusually divided vote of 8-4. Dissenters -- including board president Arcelio Aponte -- questioned if he had the necessary experience for the job.
Led by Christie and state education commissioner Chris Cerf, Rouhanifard’s backers countered that he has the smarts and brings the experience in innovation that Camden needs. In the wake of his appointment, Christie’s office put out quotes of support from more than a dozen people, many of them school reform advocates citing his passion and intelligence.
Speaking for himself, Rouhanifard yesterday said that his years in education may be few, but he has gained a lot in that experience, adding that the years in finance gave him important insights into data-driven decision-making.
And he is ready to convince his district and the public that he is up for the job, not to mention ready to bring in the expertise and support that can help in areas that are not his strengths.
“People have been warm and receptive,” he said of his meetings in 17 schools so far, as well as conversations with local stakeholders.
“I certainly respect that people have different opinions [of what one’s experience should be]. My job is to roll up my sleeves and show what kind of work I can do.”
Even without the state takeover, Camden was in line for some big transformations, with an influx of charter schools -- especially a new hybrid version of conventional charters known as “renaissance schools.”
The latter will be operated by one of the nation’s largest charter school networks, KIPP Network, which is slated to build a total of five renaissance schools in Camden, serving more than 2,000 students. That adds to nine charter schools already operating in the district, plus three new ones this fall.
“Our goal is to have a system of great schools,” Rouhanifard said yesterday. “That entails every single school is high quality and every parent has access to those schools. It will involve transforming existing schools, and developing new schools. That will mean working with our district schools, our charter schools, and our new renaissance schools.”
Rouhanifard said he doesn’t hide his support for and past work in building what he called a portfolio of options for students. In both New York and Newark, a centerpiece of his role was arranging space-sharing between district and charter schools.
Camden so far has no such co-locations, and Rouhanifard said he wants to ensure that the charters’ enrollments reflect district's, and that they are not serving fewer special needs or at-risk students, a frequent complaint about charters. But he said a universal enrollment system such as one he helped develop in Newark can help.
“It’s a huge frustration, but it’s a solvable one,” he said.
He also discounted the whispers from some critics that he is coming into Camden to disband the district schools and replace them with charters or renaissance schools. “There is no prescriptive plan that I’m bringing,” he said.
But he does not rule out that he envisions a district that will be enormously different in five years time. “I think even a year from now, things should look different,” he said.
One of his more immediate tasks is to negotiate new contracts with teachers and principals. Both expired in the past year and represent the largest piece of his $389 million budget.
And coming out of Newark, where he was responsible for implementing that district’s historic teachers agreement, the natural question is whether he will try to bring performance bonuses and peer reviews to Camden.
Rouhanifard yesterday wouldn’t say one way or the other -- on one hand praising the Newark contract negotiated by Anderson, on the other saying that Camden has different goals and needs.
“I think that Cami [Anderson] brokered a remarkable contract, I really do,” he said. “It’s one that fits her needs and those of Newark, but what I have to do is meet the needs of Camden.”
He did say that his very first call once taking the job was to the Camden teachers union president, and he plans to start sitting down with her in the coming days and weeks.
It came back to what he said to start the conversation. “I focus on asking good questions,’ he said, “I focus on listening.”