Camden Superintendent on First Year of Universal Enrollment

School reform in Newark it was announced two years ago with great fanfare, but the state appointed School Superintendent failed to enlist the community in the process and failed to enroll students seamlessly. They failed to generate support from teachers or the school board. In Camden, it’s another story. Its state appointed Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard is also incorporating school reform. He’s using a lesson learned from Newark: do the opposite. NJTV News Anchor Mary Alice Williams spoke with Superintendent Rouhanifard about the enrollment that opens in the new year.

Williams: You recently announced universal enrollment for the upcoming school year, how is that going to work?

Rouhanifard: We just announced Camden enrollment, which is an optional enrollment system that is intended to make families’ lives easier by streamlining the process. Currently in Camden, there are 17 unique applications with eight different monthly deadlines across all of our school types, so that’s traditional, public, renaissance and charter schools. That just makes families’ lives complicated when you have to go through this complicated maze just to complete one application. What we want to do is just one application, one deadline. And, again, it’s optional, meaning that if you like your student’s school and you want to remain there, you don’t have to do anything. But if say you’re an eighth grader and looking for a high school, there’s one application, one guide book. We’re going to have an enrollment fair where all of our schools are going to be represented simply to make student and parents’ lives easier.

Williams: Are they going to have more time? Do enrollments open earlier?

Rouhanifard: Enrollment will open up Jan. 5 and they’ll have approximately two months from then, so we do believe that’s ample time. Our team has been going above and beyond to get the word out about our new enrollment system. We were actually just knocking on doors yesterday, going to local businesses to have them put up flyers on their windows, so we’re trying to get the word out.

Williams: What method are you going to use to determine what student gets assigned where? That was such a big problem in Newark — will students still have a preference for attending their community schools?

Rouhanifard: Absolutely. So first and foremost, families, students will have a guaranteed seat at their neighborhood school. That preference will exist, and that’s directly in line with the feedback we have been hearing from our local community. Especially when you think about some of the challenges when it comes to public safety here. Parents want to be able to walk their students to school nearby in their neighborhood and not necessarily put them on a bus all the time, especially with some of the challenges with public transportation and infrastructure in our city. The second thing I would want to point out is the preferences that is driven by siblings, so if families want to keep their siblings together that is another preference structure that we are going to incorporate.

Williams: You planned to roll out the new enrollment plan a year ago and then you postponed it, why?

Rouhanifard: We decided to postpone it just because we came to realize there was just so much more feedback we needed to take into account. We were hearing a lot of different concerns and questions both from families, but also from our school partners and the charter community. We just wanted to push the pause button because it’s really complicated and really hard work. I believe that extra year of planning has really benefited us and we’re in a much better place here as we have formerly rolled it out now.

Williams: As you worked under Cami Anderson in Newark, as she was imposing One Newark and prior to the roll out of that controversial plan, it was a bumpy ride. What did you learn from how the community reacted to that plan in Newark?

Rouhanifard: You know, I get that question a lot. I worked in Newark for about seven months. I wasn’t there for the rollout of One Newark, and what I can tell you is that my focus, our focus here, has been just be the best Camden school district we can be, not necessarily looking around at the rest of the state, or the rest of the country. What I do think is important, and what we’ve focused on since day one, is working alongside our community; listening, learning about what we don’t know. Our community partners are our families, CBOs, faith-based institutions, they all had a seat at the table to help us develop this system and I think we’re better off for it. But it’s a really complicated endeavor, to bring 17 applications into one, have charters put aside their lotteries and participate in a system that’s centralized because they have a lot to lose in doing that. I’m pleased where we are and the importance we placed, again, is on our community’s voice.

Williams: Universal enrollment did get some push back from a few renaissance schools who feared that it would disrupt students who had been going there for years. How have you worked with the renaissance schools to calm their concerns?

Rouhanifard: That’s a good question. There were a couple charter schools that were voicing some concerns. We were okay with the renaissance schools, but you know renaissance and charter schools are very similar. The charter school communities, we have couple around in Camden, they have been around for 17, 18 years and they have established reputations. Their families are accustomed to a certain deadline. So at the end of the day, they kind of took a leap of faith with the best interest of the city. So what I mean by that is that they realized that by making one application, it makes all the families lives in Camden better. It is for the greater good of the city, but it creates complications for them because their parents are accustomed to filling out that application in November and now they have to wait until January just to apply. March is when we’re going to give the formal notification. They took a leap of faith and we’re really appreciative for that.

Williams: You’ve launched a long formal plan called Camden Commitment that was in 2014. How far along are you in reaching the goals set out in that plan?

Rouhanifard: We’re now in the second part of that plan. The first part of that plan we released basically 100 days after I was appointed and it culminated 18 months later. This current plan we just released about three months ago, and it culminates at the end of this school year. We have deliberately created short term tactical plans so that the community can hold our feet to the fire and hold us accountable to it. We’re going to put out quarterly progress reports. We just put out the most recent one Tuesday night at our board meeting, and we still have a lot of work to do because we’re only three months into this plan. So depending on the goal, we have made varied amounts of progress, but at the end of the day we’re going to be transparent about where we are making progress and where we’re falling short.

Williams: How far off is your district in regaining local control? Two other districts, Jersey City and Newark, are actually well on their way to regaining local control.

Rouhanifard: We’re still a little ways from local control, however, what I’ll point out is that we’re only in our third year as far as a state intervention goes. What I have stated publicly time and time again, whether it be in our board meetings or other local meetings, that we would like to see, I would like to see, local control in Camden in the not too distant future. Meaning that we don’t envision a 20-plus year state intervention here in Camden. So if we stay the course, keep our heads down and do the hard work, the numbers will inch up. I do believe that this is an important issue; the community wants local control, our board members do, all the key members, our families, our faith-based organizations, so we have to mindful of that and know that in three years alone we are not going to get there, but this won’t be a 20-year intervention.