The turnaround in Camden may have started in the city’s schools. In the three years since the state took over the failing district, graduation rates have risen from less than half to 70 percent. The dropout rate among English language learners has fallen a quarter. Among African American students its been cut in half. More than $313 million is being invested in public school projects across the city under the leadership of state appointed school Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard. Anchor Mary Alice Williams spoke with him to find out what he attributes the rising graduation rate.
Rouhanifard: Well first and foremost, our resilient kids and also our incredibly dedicated and hardworking staff. This is a long time coming and some real sacrifices from across the board and we’re really pleased with the progress.
Williams: The graduating rates have improved, but only 10 percent of students are in schools that are so-called on track, 15 percent are making progress, but 75 percent of students are in schools that are categorized as needing improvement or under performing. What is your plan to address those schools?
Rouhanifard: Well, you know the reality is while we’re seeing real progress, as you just noted, we still have a really long way to go. If you just look at the graduation rate itself, 70 percent are graduating but a third still aren’t getting to the finish line. And even those who are graduating many of them are showing up unprepared at college campuses’ or unable to find meaningful employment, so we know there’s a lot of work left to do. So the key for us is to keep our heads down and continue to do the hard work because we’re seeing progress and we know we’re pushing some of the right buttons here. We’re going to continue listening to our community, building partnerships to understand the needs of our students and to be as responsive as possible.
Williams: You took the schools in the most dire straits and you fashioned them into hybrids — part public, part charter. How is that working and might you expand it to all schools?
Rouhanifard: Right, so you’re referring to our renaissance school partnerships and they don’t yet have high school results. So when you look at their outcomes from grades three through eight, what you see if that they’re outperforming our traditional public schools, so they’re seeing tremendous gains. Now, our traditional public schools are also seeing gains, so we’re seeing gains across the board which is really encouraging, and specifically with our renaissance school partnerships. Those gains are out sized and we’re thankful for those partnerships because those three organizations are sacrificing as well and putting in the hard work and our students are benefiting.
Williams: You’re also partnering with parents. You’ve started home visits by family coordinators, literacy services, SAT prep. Does that have measurable consequences so far?
Rouhanifard: This is a big initiative for us and we often say poverty is the root of our challenge and the challenges we’ve inherited are decades and decades in the making. But we don’t often take the time to actually think about what does that mean when we say that. What are the outside a classroom factors that impact student instruction? So this is our attempt to directly address those factors and to go into the homes of our 200 most chronically absent students and to support those families holistically because invariably those families need additional support and we want to make sure that we’re doing our part. So this is through weekly visits and partnerships with health care organizations, social service organizations and we’re really excited to kick off this pilot coming up this January.
Williams: That’s really wraparound. You referred to your listening tour. What community feedback are you getting?
Rouhanifard: I’d say that the feedback is many layered. First, I would say that parents are always grateful for the opportunity to voice their concerns and to know who to turn to. Secondly, I would say that a lot of families are pointing to increased supports that they would like to see in special education and bilingual education, so we need to be more responsive there. Thirdly, I would say that parents are pushing for increased rigor to make sure that we’re pushing their students and holding them up to the highest standards possible while also giving them as much support as possible.
Williams: What’s keeping Camden from becoming like Newark and Paterson — under state control for 20-plus years?
Rouhanifard: It’s a great question. The onus is on us as public officials to ensure that this isn’t some prolonged state intervention. So we’re three and a half years in. I’m grateful for the opportunity to work alongside the Camden community with our elected officials and community leaders to do right by our students and families. It’s not to say every last person agrees on the state intervention, and we know that it causes anxiety. At the end of the day the local community here wants direct control of their schools, so we’ve working in partnership with the Department of Education and I’ve actually had recent conversations with Commissioner Harrington to begin bringing back some local control, if not full control, in the coming years.
Williams: How close are you to returning to local control?
Rouhanifard: At the end of the day I don’t make that determination individually. My best guess would be in the next couple of years there could be some tenants of local control, meaning operations or fiscal. And then in terms of full local control that could still take a few more years beyond that. We’re eager to work with the state Department of Education, our current governor and future governor to really think this through.