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On Tuesday night in Camden, a standing room-only crowd of parents, grandparents, students and alumni of Camden Public Schools met with Mayor Dana Redd and Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard to discuss ways to support students and provide high-quality schools. The meeting, one of four scheduled this week (tonight’s is at North Camden Community Center at 5:30), was notable for the lack of concern with current obsessions in the Statehouse like PARCC, Common Core, union politics, data-driven teacher evaluations. Instead, community members spoke passionately about the educational needs of children.
Rouhanifard, almost two years into his tenure as superintendent, didn’t shy from the hard facts: one out of five Camden public school students is on grade level in reading and one in three is on grade level in math, 20% lower than districts with comparable demographics. There’s been a “systemic failure to” maintain facilities. Bonsall Family School, one of the traditional schools in the neighborhood where this meeting was held, has lost 150 students in two years as parents “vote with their feet” and choose charter schools. (Current enrollment in charters is 4,000, about 30% of Camden’s student population.) It’s time, he said, for “honest talk” about “hard choices.”
While there are a few promising indicators – 96% of Camden three and four-year-olds attend pre-school, up by 20% since he took on stewardship of the district, the teacher contract was just settled (nearly 2% annual salary increases, higher salaries for community liaisons and extra-curricular staff, extended instructional time) – the community, he says, needs to coalesce around a “specific path forward.” He called out the ten most struggling neighborhood schools, which the district said they will post on their website once the meetings conclude tonight.
Rouhanifard’s recommendations include an unstinting eye on academic progress and student outcomes, expansion of parent choice, particularly through charter/district hybrid schools, and renovation or rebuilding of facilities.
Then, for the next ninety minutes, Mayor Redd, Rouhanifard, and district administrators listened to community members who, one by one, approached the microphone in the cafeteria of Virtua Hospital. Here are some of their comments.
- Arthur Barclay, a Camden Public Schools graduate and current City Council member: “I’m sick and tired of hearing that our kids are headed to jail,” with their academic readiness for college and/or career far below even the dysfunctional city of Philadelphia, just across the river. “It’s now or never.” “It’s easy to point fingers, but we’ve got to stop that. I implore you to help us move our agenda forward
- A parent of two daughters in charter schools and a member of a new organization called “Parents for Great Camden Schools” (PGCS): “I’m grateful for school choice” because “my daughters have grown so much.”
- Recent graduate of Camden High: “My teachers could care less about what I was doing. Nobody supported me or pushed me on. I want better teachers and better textbooks.
- Ms. Golden, PGCS member and a graduate of Woodrow Wilson High: “I couldn’t function. I was worried about my safety.” (Note: she is about to graduate from Rutgers-Camden.)
- Natalie Aronson, principal of Camden Prep, part of the Uncommon charter network, which is expanding to Whitman Park: “Education equals freedom.”
- Another Camden alumnus: “I lost twenty-five college scholarships [for football]” because I couldn’t meet the academic requirements. (Note: he persevered through community college.)
- Bryan Morton, Executive Director of PGSC and lifelong North Camden resident: We need “safe, quality, neighborhood options.” When he was in school “it was crazier inside than on the street.”
- A teacher from Sumner Elementary, where 70% of students fail basic skills tests in math and 87% fail tests in language arts: “I’m fine with change, as long as the change is for the children.” “I’m a defender of public schools.”
- PTA President of Bonsall Elementary where 79% of students fail basic skills tests in math and 86% fail tests in language arts: “I’m with the change” but “it starts at home.” “Let’s bring back some of our teachers” and “some of our scholarship programs.” “Bonsall is my stomping-ground, it is my home.” “Why can’t we get what’s at Camden Prep at Bonsall without shutting it down?”
Rouhanifard replied, “we’re not saying to close Bonsall. We’re saying, for the children, what can we do to revitalize this school?” As he said, honest talk about hard choices.