CAMDEN, NJ—Katrina McCombs was an undergraduate at Lehigh University in the late 1980s when she realized how those from outside of Camden perceived those from the city.

The several decades of headlines highlighting the city’s crime and poverty problems created a stigma. Her classmates had trouble believing she was from Camden.

“I was like, wait a minute, you know it's not so bad,” said McCombs.

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Since then she has had a lifelong desire to change those outside perceptions. She said she wants to prove that “your zip code does not determine your destiny,” and show what Camden students can achieve. She is now in a position to make sure that happens.

McCombs, a 25-year veteran in the Camden City School District, is now its acting superintendent. She was appointed last week by the state board of education to fill the position left open by Paymon Rouhanifard who, after five years, officially left the role earlier this month.

The Department of Education is expected to launch a national search for a permanent State Superintendent for the Camden City School District, however, McCombs fully intends to prove that a former Camden High School cheerleader can continue to lead the district into a new era.

Growing up in Camden, McCombs attended Mickle School, Bonsall Elementary School, Cooper’s Poynt Family School, and Hatch Middle School, and in 1987, she graduated from Camden High School.

"I believe I had a great education and it set me up fo success, and I want our students graduating high school to feel the same way," said McCombs.

She went on to attend Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, where she earned an undergraduate degree in behavioral and neurosciences. After a brief two-year stint in the classroom, she returned to school to earn a master’s degrees in psychological counseling at Teachers College, Columbia University and public administration from Rutgers University.

She has served in the school district as a kindergarten teacher, literacy coach, principal, and early childhood director, and most recently serving as deputy superintendent under Rouhanifard.

KEEPING THE MOMENTUM ROLLING

In 2013, then-governor Chris Christie appointed Rouhanifard to lead the Camden City School District shortly after the state’s take over of the ailing school system.

Rouhanifard, then the deputy superintendent of the Newark School district, and a former Goldman Sachs employee, inherited a school district that had 23 schools out of its 26 ranked among the worst in the state.

Five years later, that number is down to eight out of 18. As Rouhanifard exits his role leading the Camden City School District, graduation rates are up, suspensions are down, and the district’s reading and math scores are slowly climbing.

“We’re making progress, but we have a really long way to go,” said Rouhanifard at his final annual report to the state board of education in early June.

PARCC proficiency scores for students in grades three through eight, district and renaissance schools combined, have increased from 4.3 percent to 11.4 percent in math; and from 6.5 percent to 15.7 percent in English language arts, according to data presented to the state board of education,

The district’s graduation rates have also increased under Rouhanifard, jumping from 49 percent in 2012 to 66 percent in 2017, along with the dropout rate being cut in half, down from 21 percent to 11.6 percent.

“Kids are staying in school longer with us, and that’s a testament to our incredible educators, our principals, our teachers, our support staff, who are building stronger cultures and climates within our schools that’s allowing kids to stay on longer and to fight and to get to the finish line,” said Rouhanifard to the school board.

McCombs said as acting superintendent, she plans to maintain that growth of of math and reading proficiency in the district, and believes that its time to "accelerate the growth" and turn the conversation "from one of growth to proficiency."

She said she also plans to focus on rehabilitating the districts schools, and recruiting the right teachers and providing professional development and training for those teachers.

One of her first actions as acting superintendent will be to hold a community listening tour this summer to hear from parents, students, teachers and school leaders about what the people out on the front lines are seeing and hearing, and to see if "any tweaks can be made."

"We’re open to change, open to hearing feedback, open to flexibility in those areas that make sense to be flexible right now," said McCombs.

However, she said, there won't be any major changes to the school district “because we’ve got to maintain some consistency and have it centered around student achievement.”

Rouhanifard knows McCombs is up to the task, saying she is “immeasurably qualified” to lead the district.

“The children and families of Camden have found a hometown champion and leader. Everyone who knows Katrina can testify to her personal integrity and commitment to Camden,” said Rouhanifard, who has supported McCombs to take over as the CCSD leader.

Sean Brown first met McCombs around 2006 when she was the principal at the now-closed Lanning Square Elementary School, and praised her leadership when students had to be moved out of the building due to an unsafe roof.

"I got to see her as a woman of really, really high integrity and poise and respect," said Brown, who served on the school board from 2010 to 2013. "You have an acting superintendent who’s the first superintendent in Camden since the early 2000’s, almost 18 years, that is home grown, that went through various levels and understands the central office, the schools, the challenges, the relationships with the state and politics in a way that’s really thorough and important for a superintendent to know."

Brian Morton, executive director of Parents for Greater Camden Schools, led a group of parents to the early June state board of education meeting to show support for McCombs taking over.

"She’s a local Camden product," said Morton in early June. "She has the first hand experience and I think the personal commitment to getting the job done correctly."

McCombs is aware, however, of the added pressure that comes with being a familiar face. Inside of the nurses office at the Thomas H. Dudley School on Friday afternoon, she cites a bible verse she says she lives by, “To whom much is given, much is required.”

“If people trust you, they’re going to hold to a higher standard. And if people know you, they’re going to push and challenge. I think that’s a good thing.”

When she was a cheerleader at Camden High School, or later when she was just starting out her career as a kindergarten teacher, McCombs said she never though she would find the position she is in today.

“This is an awesome opportunity for me to really just give back because I got so much out of the education here in the city,” said McCombs. “I don’t want the kids to have any less than I did because I know how powerful and how life changing a good, solid education can be. So it's a challenge but it's a challenge that I am up for and that I honestly embrace.”