Ten Questions: Paymon Rouhanifard
What it takes to improve Camden schools
By Terri Akman

The future for many of Camden’s children is bleak, especially when you consider that only about half of Camden high school students graduate, and standardized test scores show the city’s students on average perform at the lowest level in the state. But for 33-year-old Paymon Rouhanifard, the state-appointed superintendent of Camden Public Schools, the task of turning around these troubled schools is possible. The passionate leader, who took over last year, believes every student deserves a bright future. That belief fuels him. It made him take on a job many would be afraid to do, and it keeps him moving forward, working to change kids’ lives.

Why did you take this job?
It starts with my family’s history. I was born in Iran and came to this country when I was 6 years old, fleeing religious and political persecution. What I can recall vividly growing up as a first-grader – we wound up in, of all places, a small town in Tennessee – is my parents constantly telling us the stories of their struggles and readjusting to a new environment. Their ability to persevere through those challenges was because of their education. That’s what they would stress to my brother and me constantly. I wanted to be that same force they were for me and my teachers were for me, to provide better educational outcomes for students and families. I had that social justice bent in college. I wound up teaching in a classroom in West Harlem my first year out of college. What I saw in the classroom led me to want to find systemic solutions to the issues.

What are your short-term goals for the schools?
We released a strategic plan in January that focuses on five critical promises. We call them The Camden Commitment. It’s an 18-month plan with goals attached to each of the promises. The first is about improved safety. As part of my first 100 days, we did a big listening tour where we surveyed students and staff members. We learned safety was clearly a concern. Half of our students in elementary school told us they don’t feel safe in hallways and bathrooms. Eighty percent of our middle school and high school students don’t feel safe walking to and from school. So that’s the first promise in our strategic plan.

The second is to improve facilities across the school district. Half of our buildings were constructed before 1928, a number of which are truly in a deplorable state. The third is about improving student services and quality of instruction. The fourth is about being more family-friendly as a district. We put a lot of hurdles in front of our parents. This is a working-class poor community, and we need to meet parents where they are. Parents are our customers, and we need to be more service-oriented. The fifth promise is about having a more efficient and effective central office.

How about long-term goals?
Ultimately our goal is to create a system of great schools. The plan covers – by design – 18 months, because we believe families want to actually see an immediate and tangible plan, although a number of these initiatives will take a lot longer than that, especially facilities. It will take a number of years to renovate old buildings and construct new ones. A lot of times, long-term plans outdate the superintendent, so we wanted something folks could hold us accountable to. [Rouhanifard’s contract is for a three-year term.]

You’ve completed your first year on the job. What has been your biggest challenge?
Taking everyone’s opinion into account. Education is a topic where folks aren’t short on opinions. That’s important to us, because we have taken listening and evaluating really seriously. Our plan came out of our 100-day listening tour. But sometimes you get folks who disagree with you. At times we have to make some difficult decisions and agree to disagree. You treat everyone with respect, and you’re constantly open-minded to potential changes that you have to make. To the extent I disagree or our team disagrees, we’re at least going to make clear what our rationale is and do that with a sense of purpose and humanity.

Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard and Camden High School grad Dejon Sullivan

Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard and Camden High School grad Dejon Sullivan

What impact have the students had on you?
We spend a lot of time with our students. We have a student advisory board that we meet with two times a month. There’s one student named Dejon Sullivan who I’ve gotten to know. Dejon very much embodies the sense of resilience here in the city. He’s a kid who has certainly gone through personal challenges. He went to Camden High School, but he moved around a lot and bounced around different schools across the country. He’s incredibly hard-working, and somebody I’ve learned a lot from. He wakes up every morning at 4 to run three miles and also runs again after school. He’s a track athlete and played football as well. He’s a poet and does so many different things. That’s what it takes here. You constantly have to stay busy and be engaged in meaningful activities before and after school, because there are a lot of pitfalls here, and kids can get lost in the streets. He’s somebody who has taken his responsibilities as a student, an athlete and a good citizen seriously. It’s been really inspiring. He just graduated, and he’s going to Cheyney University of Pennsylvania.

What are you most proud of?
The relationships we’ve developed here. If you talk to elected officials, community leaders and people involved in the school district, they’ll tell you we’ve been responsive, and we’ve taken the time to understand the district’s unique needs and history. You can point to other initiatives that may sound sexier, such as opening a handful of high-quality schools that are going to provide an incredible education for students and families, but I’m particularly proud we’ve taken relationship-building really seriously. It’s easy to forget about that when your charge is to improve student achievement. We certainly haven’t lost sight of our students and improving test scores, but it’s important for us to build trust in the community.

Are there days you think the job is insurmountable?
I don’t feel as though it’s insurmountable. I believe there’s a path forward, and I’m deeply optimistic about the vision and direction of this school district. There are certainly days that are more challenging than others. This is a 24-hours-a-day job, because we’re constantly responding to the various needs that come up.

You are young for a person in your position. Does your youth bring a certain value or could it be perceived as a detriment?
Some folks here will point out my youth, but ultimately the governor and commissioner selected me not because of my youth, but because of my skill set and experiences as an administrator in New York City public schools and as a teacher working a short stint in Newark. I don’t sit still. Every day is a new adventure for us, and if that’s what youth implies, I guess that’s an attribute. I certainly know a lot of folks who have a lot more experience than me and have just as much energy as I do.

Congratulations on your son Jonah, who was born in April. How has fatherhood changed your outlook?
It’s a whole new way of looking at the world. There’s not a day or an hour that goes by that I don’t think about him and our family. You have a life you’re caring for. Whether that’s sitting in my office thinking about him, or me visiting a school and thinking, “What if he were in that seat, how would I feel differently about this school?” That’s partly driven by the fact that I don’t see him five days a week. He’s in New York with my wife. She’s graduating in September, finishing up a PhD program in biochemistry. Once she’s done, they’re going to move down here.

What do you think about Camden, and what would you like parents in the suburbs to know?
It’s a wonderful, special place. The city oftentimes gets a bad rap that is undeserved. It certainly has struggled with crime and poverty, but you walk around the city and talk to community leaders and families, and they deeply care about the city’s legacy and their students. It’s a resilient city. Its sense of grit and resilience match the best qualities of any city in this country. It’s not the city you see in the newspapers. There are certainly challenges the city is grappling with, but that’s not what the city is. Whether it’s the North Camden Little League, an amazing after-school program, or the Camden Sophisticated Sisters [drill team], there are so many efforts working alongside our schools to improve outcomes for the quality of life here.

September 2014
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