Alicia Rivera was slightly surprised a few years ago to hear a knock on her door. After all, it was a Saturday.
Once she answered, she was shocked. Paymon Rouhanifard was standing on the other side. He introduced himself simply as Paymon — the head of the Camden City School District.
“‘What is the superintendent doing knocking on my door?’” Rivera remembers thinking at the time. “In Camden, you don’t get that.”
Rouhanifard, who was appointed by Gov. Chris Christie in 2013, announced his resignation Wednesday with a 90-day notice. The announcement has brought on a flurry of disappointment and celebration. His critics say he’s abandoned Camden schools; his admirers credit him with monumental change, including boosting the district’s graduation rate from 49 to 70 percent.
For Rivera, he’s something of a life changer.
Rouhanifard had been walking around the neighborhood to speak with parents when he met Rivera. She unpacked the story of her daughter, a public school student who had been transferred to eight schools in six years. The district had been attempting to accommodate her daughter’s Down syndrome. But the constant transition only made things more difficult.
“She would never have a friend. She couldn’t, you know, have a good teacher, where she could say, ‘Mom, that’s my teacher, you know, and I like her,’ ” Rivera said.
Together, she and Rouhanifard came up with a next step: to enroll Rivera’s daughter in a Mastery Charter School. It’s no longer a rarity in Camden to opt for alternative education. More than 50 percent of students enroll in renaissance schools — a sort of hybrid of charter and public — or traditional charter schools such as Mastery.
The change was like night and day for Rivera; instead of dreading school, her daughter started craving it. She began reading and writing, gained an affinity for math, took photography lessons. She travels into Philadelphia once a month to practice life skills at the University of Pennsylvania.
“She says, ‘Mom, now I have a family, I have friends. And this school is like a family to me.’ And she is so happy. And so, that’s my thing with Mr. Paymon,” Rivera said. “And I hate for him to leave.”
But not all Camden residents feel the same. For instance, Keith Benson, president of the Camden Education Association, is celebrating the resignation.
“This situation is sort of tantamount to, someone who’s ever been bullied, finding out that their bully just moved into another town,” he said
Benson, who champions public schools, says Rouhanifard poured too much time into charter and renaissance schools instead of working to improve traditional public ones.
And Camden has seen a decline in public school enrollment over the years. Some have closed due to low enrollment, while LEAP Academy, KIPP New Jersey and other companies have stepped in and attracted students.
“It seemed like someone who has been, for lack of a better word, oppressing our schools and our community for five years is now gone,” Benson said.
Years ago, Judith Mota said, she “had it out” for the superintendent. Frustrated with the quality of education her children received in public schools, she first met Rouhanifard at a board meeting, where she “chewed his head off.”
Then, the two had a one-on-one meeting. Mota used to be skeptical of charter schools; now, her children attend them.
Her son plays basketball on a team at Mastery, ad she teases her children about sending them back to their old schools. Each time she ran into Rouhanifard, he asked about her kids, she said.
“I’m actually sad that he’s leaving,” Mota said.
The root of Rouhanifard’s resignation is difficult to pin down. He’s said stepping down will allow him to spend more time with his family. But some think the changing political climate of New Jersey caused Rouhanifard to leave. Chris Christie, who appointed him to the district in the first place, is no longer governor.
Bryan Morton, the executive director of Parents for Great Camden Schools, said it may be a combination of both factors.
“I feel not having an ally sort of made it easier to make the personal choice [to resign],” Morton said.
Felisha Reyes-Morton, vice president of the district school board, graduated from a Camden charter school in 2007. While she’s happy to see Rouhanifard “pass the baton” to someone else, she thinks his administration was a step in the right direction.
“It was kind of like the seed that needed to be planted in order for the garden to grow later on,” she said.