Camden Superintendent’s Plan Lets Non-Profits Operate Five Schools

By David Cruz

Like a politician on the day after a State of the Union speech, Camden Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard was out selling the concept of school reform.

With a large media team directing traffic, the superintendent hopped on the phone at the new family information center.

“There’s an exciting new partnership that’s happening at Bond all school next school year. Have you heard about this?” he asked.

Rouhanifard is trying to get community buy-in for his plan to turn over operation of five city schools to private non-profits, who will turn them into Renaissance schools, which are kind of like charter schools, except for a few key differences.

“One they’re public neighborhood schools, so they have an attendance area. If you live in that neighborhood you have the right to go to that school. Two, they’re partnership schools with the district, so we have a contract with them and we can say here are some programs that are important to the community and you should deliver on those. And third, they have the ability to renovate existing buildings or build from the ground up,” Rouhanifard said.

Rouhanifard has been on the job for 18 months with the kind of state support most superintendents would probably envy. But, unlike his fellow state-appointed superintendent in Newark, Rouhanifard’s changes have not met with the same kind of push back.

“They’ve learned from Newark. They’ve learned you can’t close schools all at once. You stretch it out,” said Professor Stephen Danley.

Danley teaches public policy at Rutgers/Camden and a critic of the superintendent’s changes.

“The end game is what we’ve seen in Newark. What we’ve seen in other places, which is you wanna reform a school district around a political ideology. There’s a lot if good talk about voting with your feet. We saw the hypocrisy of that. The schools that are being closed are well attended. The residents voted with their feet because they couldn’t vote in any elections. And what we saw was that schools were closed anyway,” Danley said.

Parents, though, tend to be more pragmatic. They’re tired of the politics and rhetoric that have left this city nearly in shambles. They just want to feel like sending their child to school is not an exercise in futility.

“I’m hoping that they’re going to challenge my child more, that they’re going to have different ways of teaching each kid, not just one set standard because not all kids learn the same,” said parent Zulay Aguilar.

“My biggest fear for my child I would say is that he is not getting the education he deserves,” said parent Josie Rodriguez.

Support for these reforms is not universal but even the critics are muted when confronted with the enormous task that still lies ahead.