Trenton, NJ—Outgoing Camden City School District [CCSD] Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard was inside the New Jersey Department of Education building Wednesday waiting to give the district's annual report to the state board of education.
Outside, a contingent of Camden parents were gathered to not only show support for the progress that has been made over Rouhanifard's tenure, but to also make public their support for who they believe will continue the progress that has been made over the past five years — CCSD Deputy Superintendent Katrina McCombs.
The group of about 30 parents are part of Parents For Great Camden Schools, a parent group that advocates for quality education for all Camden students.
"We have parents from several different school types, traditional, renaissance, charter, and parochial," said Brian Morton, executive director of Parents For Great Camden Schools. "We’re here to talk about the progress that has been made, that we want it continue, that we’re supportive of the interim superintendent [Katrina McCombs]...
"...she’s a local Camden product, born and raised in the City of Camden, went through our public system, became a teacher, a principal and is now a superintendent. So in terms of understanding what’s needed at every level in our district, she has the first hand experience and I think the personal commitment to getting the job done correctly," said Morton.
According to Morton, since Parents for Great Camden Schools started five years ago, it has knocked on 40,000 doors, had 5,000 parents sign on as members, and has had 3,000 parents come out to meetings.
Morton said that Rouhanifard's willingness to work with and listen to parents has attributed to the progress made in the school district.
"We’re here to speak in one voice that we have seen progress, and part of the progress can be attributed to the superintendent, but the large majority of the progress has to be attribute to parents have helped informed his decision making, and he has been very receptive to making a priority of hearing parents and then integrating that into his policy making decisions," Morton said.
North Camden parent Alicia Rivera said she made the trip to support the superintendent, whom she met five years ago when he knocked on her door.
"I want to support the superintendent, he has helped my family immensely," said Rivera, whose daughter, Taina, has Down Syndrome and was switched schools eight times over six years before she enrolled at Mastery East Camden Middle School.
"She learned how to read, she writes, she says to me, 'Mom, I have a family now,’" said Rivera.
Jose Lugo said his daughter, Angelina, didn't know how to read or write before she enrolled in Camden Prep, a renaissance school run by Uncommon Schools.
"My daughter now reads and writes by herself, and she encouraged me to go back to school last year and I got my GED. Camden Prep supported our family," said Lugo.
"Several policies under the superintendent, from the suspension policy to common enrollment, were things that parents pushed for, so we have helped shape the direction of our district," Morton said. "From once being the lowest performing districts in the state, we are now seeing results in many of our schools that our comparable to our peers, that’s something people would have just thought unheard of or not possible in a community such as Camden."
Morton added that in addition to showing support for the school district, it was also important for the parents to familiarize themselves in a setting like the New Jersey State Board of Education meeting.
"There is a duality in what we’re hoping to accomplish today," said Morton. "When you come from a disenfranchised community, so often you defer to leadership, even if you have something to say and we want parents to be encouraged that their voice matters."
Later that morning, Rouhanifard, along with McCombs, outlined that progress in its annual report for the state board of education.
According to the district's presentation, since the 2014-15 school year, the district's PARCC proficiency scores in English language arts and math have doubled; since the state take over in 2012, the school dropout rate has been cut in half, the graduation rate is up from 49 percent to 66 percent; and from the 2015-2016 school year to the 2016-2017 school year, the school district was able to reduce suspensions from 1,508 to 713.
"We're making progress, but we really have along way to go," Rouhanifard said.
When combined, 11.4 percent of district and renaissance school students in grades three through eight scored proficient in English language arts, compared to the state average of 43.8 percent; 15.7 percent scored proficient in math, compared to the state average of 56.2 percent.
"What we're really, really proud of is the drop-out rate has been cut in half," said Rouhanifard. "Kids are staying in school longer with us, and that's a a testament to our incredible educators, principals, teachers and support staff who are building stronger cultures and climates in our schools that is allowing kids to stay on longer, and to fight, and to get to the finish line."
"At the same time, one out of three students are finishing with a high school diploma so, again, we have a long way to go."
Kevin Barfield made the trip to Trenton, even though he is not part Parents for Great Camden Schools. Barfield, a member of the district's Parent Advisory Council, said that he felt the district has stopped listening to the people who have been there for years.
"For 45 years we’ve been supporting education through Title I ... you’re not bringing the parents who have been there the whole time, you’re not bringing them to the table," Barifeld said.
CCSD spokesperson Maita Soukup said the District Parent Advisory Council works closely with the administration to host their monthly parent trainings and other parent empowerment activities.
"The superintendent and deputy superintendent welcome parent engagement, and thank parents like Mr. Barfield who are deeply involved in their children’s schools and the issues," Soukup said.
After the annual report was delivered to the state school board, Rouhanifard was asked what he learned during his tenure as CCSD superintendent.
"What were really proud of is that one person can’t do this alone. We’ve been able to build broad coalitions of support, and I think that you can’t institute change of management without humanizing the work, without being accessible," said Rouhanifard.