By David Cruz
Five months after the state announced a takeover of the city’s schools, Gov. Chris Christie was back in Camden today, announcing his choice for the city’s new superintendent, and repeating something he has said many times before.
“There is nothing — as governor — more important to me and I mean nothing,” said the governor. “It shouldn’t be just in our suburbs where educational excellence is demanded. It should be everywhere where it’s demanded across the state because to believe that the system we have in place is acceptable, to believe that there is an inherent difference between the children in the suburbs and the children in the cities, I reject that.”
The new superintendent is Paymon Rouhanifard, who went through an interview with Christie himself. He has a compelling personal story that includes his family’s escape from Iran after the revolution and their struggles in America, which included a period of homelessness.
“I can remember my mom telling us that if it weren’t for the education she and my father had received, they would not have had the courage and the wherewithal to persevere through that hardship and to start their lives all over again,” he said. “I must have heard her say that a thousand times. They helped me see that the education I was afforded could help shape my destiny and, thanks to their profound sacrifices, it has.”
But Rouhanifard is no stranger to the inner workings of education reform policy and politics. He worked as an assistant to Commissioner Chris Cerf in the New York Chancellor’s Office and followed Cerf to New Jersey where the commissioner named him as a chief strategy officer for Newark’s schools, his duties there including the controversial integration of new charter schools.
Newark Advisory School Board President Antoinette Basketville Richardson said today, “He is a bright young man and I wish him well; I can only assume he was hired to move forward with Gov. Christie’s and Commissioner Cerf’s charter school agenda.”
Cerf called Rouhanifard — who aside from two years as a sixth grade teacher in Harlem has never run a school or a district — an innovative leader for a troubled system, where about 30 percent of the kids can read and only about half the students graduate high school.
“Those are stunning statistics and the governor said don’t look to the ordinary,” said Cerf, adding that Christie challenged him to “look for a transformative leader, look for new thinking, look for bold thinking and find someone who can do all of that.”
By getting so directly involved in the selection process, the governor made it clear that turning around the city’s schools was a top priority. If it succeeds, he’ll get most of the credit and if it doesn’t, he’ll likely get most of the blame, but today he said that’s a challenge he’s ready to take.