Camden Protesters Warn of Privatization Looming for City’s ‘Public’ Schools

By David Cruz

Protestors — about 50 in all — met outside a conference downtown in the hopes of confronting Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard, the symbol of what they say is an effort to privatize the city’s schools.

“Where’s Mr. Rouhanifard,” barked demonstrator Vida Neil into a bullhorn. “Where you at? I wanna see you face to face.”

Camden schools have been under state control for only two years, but in that time the governor has moved quickly, installing a new superintendent and pushing legislation that helped pave the way for renaissance schools like this one — the KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy, which opened last week.

“We’ve had KIPP, UnCommon, Mastery come in here,” said Marie Blistan, a Vice President with the New Jersey Education Association, the teacher’s union. “They are national corporations that come in and they upset the communities. We’ve had a full history of the work that they have done in undoing any work that the public schools have done and they do not make the changes that they purport to do.”

KIPP renaissance is not a charter, per se. It functions with the same mandates as traditional public schools but it’s run by a private operator, with its own board, which has some parents here concerned.

“No transparency, no voices, no democracy,” said activist Monique Ragsdale. “The media put this perception out that we’re ok with this, so we want to get our voices heard. We’re sick of talking to walls. We want everybody to know — we want Rouhanifard to resign. We would like to get back full control. We have no democracy here in Camden. We don’t even elect our school board. It is sad and it is unconstitutional.”

Antoinette Baskerville sits on the school board in Newark, where the state has had control for more than two decades. She was there to remind demonstrators that the battle for return of local control may be long, but it is winnable.

“We come here today from Newark to speak to you guys in Camden, to say we have had 20 years of state control,” she said. “We are hopefully on our way but we don’t want you to do 20 years. We have done 20 years, like 20 years on prison. Don’t get it wrong.”

Rouhanifard was gone by the time protestors gathered downtown. NJTV News met him across town, outside Cooper’s Poynt school, where the still-new superintendent is meeting with parents tonight. He says it’s important to remember where the impetus for all this change comes from.

“Parents don’t necessarily think about governance structure,” he said. “They think about safety first. They think about the quality of the facility and they think about the quality of instruction.”

Right now about a third of Camden’s kids are in charters or renaissance schools and that number is only expected to grow. Protesters fear a future where all of Camden’s traditional schools are replaced by charters and renaissance schools.

“I think the issue of governance is important in the sense that we want transparency. We can’t shy away from that conversation, and so there are some tradeoffs here, to be totally candid with you. So we’ve acknowledged that those tradeoffs exist,” added the superintendent. “We’re doing everything we can to mitigate those concerns, and, again, the renaissance school board meetings are just as public as our board meetings.”

Organizers acknowledge that this is a relatively small group but they say they represent a wide cross-section of Camden families. And they point to Newark as an example of a small group that grew into a movement that ran a superintendent out of town and has them on the verge of a return to local control.