Response: The Real Story in Camden, N.J.

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On Sunday Education Week published an editorial by Julia Sass Rubin (cross-posted at Blue Jersey) on Camden Public Schools and the community-wide efforts to reform a dysfunctional system. Ms. Rubin’s piece is ridden with misinformation and EdWeek has already issued a correction at the bottom of her editorial. I’m grateful to EdWeek for publishing my response in order to correct the record. I’m cross-posting it here and it’s called “The Real Story in Camden, N.J.”

Every day in Camden, New Jersey, students wake up with just over a 50 percent chance of earning a high school diploma.

This is reality. It is negligence on the part of a school system that has failed families for decades. It has to change.

For decades, though, it hasn’t. Ten years ago, Governor Jon Corzine’s Education Commissioner, Lucille Davy, declared, “I can’t get past [Camden’s] third- and fourth-grade reading and math scores, which are horrible.” In the same article David Sciarra, Executive Director of the Education Law Center and chief advocate for New Jersey’s poor urban students, explained that “the woes in Camden point to a serious leadership problem. The state [Board of Education] has also lacked the capacity and will, until the last four to six months, to exercise its responsibility to step in and take control.”

But over the past year—for the first time in decades—there is real cause for hope for Camden’s students. The State of New Jersey has finally lived up to its moral obligation to take action and appointed a new district leader in Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard. A child of Iranian immigrants who fled to this country to escape religious persecution, Rouhanifard has unveiled and begun to deliver on a bold and aggressive plan—The Camden Commitment—to dramatically improve the quality of education for all students in Camden.

As part of this strategic plan, Rouhanifard has also worked to bring some of the best nonprofits in the country to Camden to provide immediate new school options to parents and families under the auspices of the Urban Hope Act. For example, KIPP, which already runs a high-achieving consortium of schools across the country, will open this fall the KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy, eventually planned for K-5, with guaranteed enrollment for all children in the neighborhood. Mastery Charter Schools, which operates 15 high-quality schools with 9,600 students in nearby Philadelphia, just had its application approved by the state. The state also approved Uncommon Schools, where 6th grade students in 75 percent of its regions outperform their peers statewide in reading.

These have not been easy changes. Creating immediate new opportunities for families and fixing decades of mismanagement has required difficult choices. But for the first time in Camden, as parents and community leaders and elected officials come together, there finally seems to be a collective commitment to doing what’s right for children—not adults.

Unfortunately, the commitment to children doesn’t seem to extend to the suburbs of New Jersey. Julia Sass Rubin, in what is becoming a tired refrain, wrote a post here on EdWeek that, among other things, attacked the process by which these new schools were being opened. The allegations—which even the most novice Google user could easily dispense with—included the following:

    Claim: lack of community engagement. Reality: The Superintendent held a 100-day listening tour, as well as four community meetings to discuss the plans for the new schools.
    Claim: incomplete applications. Reality: The applications included every requirement asked for under statute, from schematics for the new buildings to a detailed construction timeline.
    Claim: They had to change the law to get them approved. Reality: The law hasn’t been changed yet; it’s still a bill awaiting the governor’s signature. These schools were approved based on the statute already in place.
    Claim: Renaissance schools are greedy and only care about “market share.” Reality: These are non-profits with talented (if not underpaid) educators who care deeply about kids. And they operate with fewer per pupil dollars than the district.

Education advocates who recognize the urgency of need in Camden typically don’t get bogged down talking about bureaucratic processes. In fact, by even taking the time to address these ridiculous claims, we’re ceding the higher ground to defenders of a failed bureaucracy, those like Julia Sass Rubin. We’re talking about whether x person did y thing in order to comply with z regulation. We’re not talking about the reality that Camden students face every day or that next fall several hundred Camden children will get to attend better schools.

Now I don’t speak for Camden parents. I don’t think Ms. Rubin does either. But what I do know is that parents and guardians are smart. They are dedicated. And they want the absolute best for their children.

Last year, before the passage of the Urban Hope Act or the opening of any Renaissance Schools or Mr. Rouhanifard’s arrival, 3,500 children of Camden’s 15,000-student enrollment were attending 11 charter schools. Others were on waiting lists. Choice was used up. Now parents will have more choices: traditional district schools, charter schools, and Renaissance schools.

That is the real story here. The demand for better schools—now. We should celebrate that choice, not fight to diminish it. This is about children, not market share.

Laura Waters writes about education policy and politics at her blog NJ Left Behind, as well as NJ Spotlight, WHYY Newsworks, and other publications. Waters has a doctorate in American Literature from SUNY Binghamton, where she taught composition and literature in the Educational Opportunity Program, and is a New Jersey school board member.

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  • kallikak, July 12, 2014 @ 6:51 pm Reply

    Saw Superintendent Rouhanifard last night on NJTV. He seemed surprised and confused that anyone would question his master plan for Camden.
    No straight answers in several minutes of lackadaisical questioning by Mary Alice Williams.

    At this point, I'm not impressed.

  • Elizabeth Ortiz, July 27, 2014 @ 6:56 pm Reply

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • Elizabeth Ortiz, July 27, 2014 @ 6:59 pm Reply

    My blood is BOILING at the stupidity of this article . This is not the “REAL STORY” But all who know me know me well and I have to speak the truth….

    I am so sick and tired of people who DON”T LIVE HERE and DON'T HAVE CHILDREN in

    MY PUBLIC SCHOOL'S telling me what did and did not happen. Yeah any GOOGLE user can type in Paymon Rouhanifards name and see what he “SAYS” but where in the hell is the proof that although he had the quote on quote “100 day listening challenge” that the parents were even informed of it? And please please please tell me where I found notification of any community meetings. Because I as a parent received NONE. And for that matter neither did the heavy populated HISPANIC community who do not read or speak English. When I was in CAMDEN CITY PUBLIC SCHOOLS everything that we received to take home to our parents was BOTH in English and in Spanish. Which since Paymon has been here hasn't happened. Would you like to know when it did happen and I received the first piece of communication in both English and Spanish? July 1, 2014. So I'm sorry but the claim that JULIA SASS RUBIN has made is completely VALID! Moving on Please show me opposing information on a factual basis to disprove Julia in her claim to Incomplete Applications. And it's nice that you bring up that the law has not changed but please explain to me and every other Camden Parent how if your intentions were good you would as our senators sign a bill to extend the Urban Hope Act and make the things that you are doing illegally now legal oh yea at 11:59 pm at night when everyone is asleep in their beds? Please give me some
    damn justification on that. I would love to here it being as though the state
    capitols hours of operation are Monday-Friday 8:30 am to 5:00 pm. Just because Christie has not signed it yet does not make it OK. And on your last very nonfactual claim PLEASE discredit my current teacher from lacking deep care for my child. Please attempt to do so. I like many other parents need to see proof of accusations like this. And lets be real clear about one thing 5% is all that the Renaissance won't get they are actually only supposed to get 90% but they get to receive that extra 5% to fix there schools. So please inform me to were on god's green earth is the money to fix our schools like Camden High and Woodrow Wilson and Yorkship and Payne Poynt? I think you get my drift. They are GREEDY and don't give two craps about what the people who live here's WANTS and NEEDS. Last time I checked no one in the Federal or State or MUNICIPALITY is
    CLAIRVOYANT and can read the minds of the 77,000 people who live here!In closing I would like to say that offering a CHOICE is not the issue here what you are lacking to say in your very how did you put it “ridiculous” article is that all of you are closing our Public schools fixing them and SMACKING MASTERY/UNCOMMON/CHARTER/RENAISSANCE on it. Instead of fixing them, and providing quality training to our teachers, and providing materials to our children. Instead you would rather bring people from all around the country to come teach our kids and do whatever you see fit without taking into account the impact it's going to have on our lives. PLEASE GET YOU FACTS STRAIGHT because what you look like is a damn fool. Telling us what's going on you don't even live here! Sheesh the nerve. Thank you Julia for advocating for my child and the children of Camden please know it does not go unnoticed. You got the right

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