Commentary: Camden superintendent defends the renaissance school model

 Paymon Rouhanifard is the superintendent of Camden Public School. (AP Photo/Mel Evans, file)

Paymon Rouhanifard is the superintendent of Camden Public School. (AP Photo/Mel Evans, file)

Sometimes I am asked about whom I work for — after all, the governor appointed me. My answer is always the same: I am accountable to the parents and residents of Camden. That’s why I’ve held more than 55 public meetings since I started the job in August 2013 — roughly one every other week for two years — and that’s why I’ve regularly visited schools and made myself available for more informal conversations with students, staff, families, and residents.

This communication has been key to the progress we’ve made in Camden. Students and parents have made clear to me that they want a better education and more opportunities. They want a voice in their schools. And some parents and some residents have said they ultimately want to regain local control. I agree with all of the above – students, families, and residents deserve as much.

This understanding has infused the policies we have set and the priorities we have pursued. We’ve released public progress reports every three months so residents know how we are doing. We’ve begun building sustainable systems so the future success of the schools is not tied to an individual or a personality. And we have started to build greater capacity at the community level so residents have a greater say in the governance of their schools.

It is because we have purposefully taken this community-driven approach that we are sensitive to those who do not.

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The lead organizers of the groups holding events in Camden yesterday — the New Jersey School Choice and Educational Research Alliance and the NJ Communities United — have not been living and breathing the reality in this city day in and day out. Their views represent opposing, polar ends of the spectrum.

But here’s the thing: When you meaningfully communicate with Camden residents, they want something in the middle. Our community is demanding change, but at the same time we take pride in our children’s successes and want to build upon what’s working.

After all, we are making progress. Last year, the graduation rate went up six points in our district schools, more students were in pre-school last year than ever before, and students, staff, and families all reported feeling safer.

What I’ve consistently heard from parents is that a great school is a great school, and that parents deserve great options where they can send their children. It’s no secret that for too long Camden has dramatically lacked these opportunities for our families. I believe we need to intensely support our district schools while also introducing new, high-quality options, known as renaissance schools, which have shaken up the status quo. It’s not either-or — it’s both-and.

So far, parents have agreed — across all renaissance schools, there is more demand than there are available seats. Each of these schools is off to a promising start. It’s critical to note that because they are neighborhood schools, renaissance schools are serving their fair share of our neediest students.

I’m deeply optimistic about our students and our schools. We will continue to keep our heads down and serve our community members with the respect and humility they deserve.

Yes, I spoke at the conference, and I also communicate with some of the rally organizers.

I want to listen to what both groups have to say, and I want them to hear directly from me about the unique approach the district is taking to provide every child in Camden with access to an excellent education. It is through this approach that I believe all schools will rise.


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