Over 24,000 children live in Camden, New Jersey and most of them are attending or will attend a city public school.
Since the state takeover [also known as an “intervention”] of Camden schools in 2013, the way things happen in the school district has changed greatly. There are multiple forces and factors that influence what happens in the classroom, including the motivation of the student, the teacher’s effectiveness, parental involvement, and poverty. But to understand how students are learning, it’s also helpful to understand the individuals and institutions that also have power in the process. This somewhat subjective list provides readers with brief descriptions of who makes things happen in Camden education. Note that there will be another article about the charter and Renaissance schools on NJ Platform in April.
1. The state superintendent, Paymon Rouhanifard – With one sentence calmly spoken at monthly advisory board meetings, the superintendent has the power to approve new positions, terminations, promotions, budgets, programs, policies, and contracts. He does so with little advice from the Advisory Board. He also does this before public comment [See here for the February 2016 report]. Paymon’s priorities are clear, listed in the Camden Commitment – less testing, better facilities, and new discipline practices are included as promises. He is influenced by the rest of people or organizations on this list, but ultimately the decisions are his. [See this video of Advisory Board meeting.]
2. Student Representatives – Like most New Jersey school districts, the Camden Advisory Board includes student representatives. In Camden, student representatives have similar powers as the Advisory Board, except they are not updated on personnel issues in closed [or private] session. They can listen, ask questions, and give feedback. Student representatives consistently bring up real issues at their high schools during meetings. Issues like class offerings, printer ink, class offerings, and library access have been some recent topics. Usually the superintendent will respond, asking clarifying questions or promising to look into things that same day or at the next monthly meeting. See their comments from the December 2015 meeting here.
3. The State [When people talk about “The State” in education, it usually refers to Governor Chris Christie, Commissioner Hespe, and the State Board of Education]. Collectively they support laws and policies that expand the role of renaissance schools in Camden and they have jumped in and out of supporting Common Core. The State has been involved in Camden schools in various ways for decades. In the mid 2000s, the governor appointed three of nine school board members. Up to the takeover in 2013, the State appointed a monitor to oversee the superintendent and school board. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was once a lobbyist for Edison Schools [now known as Edison Learning] an education management corporation. Chris Cerf, now the superintendent of Newark, NJ, was his supervisor in that role. He prides himself in being involved in the details. He is famous for using strong language to attack teachers’ unions. Commissioner Hespe – This commissioner isn’t a visionary, he’s an administrator. State Board of Education – approves curriculum, tests, and staff at the statewide level
4. Camden Mayor Dana Redd – Now in her sixth year as mayor, Redd appoints members to the advisory board, and announces initiatives. The mayor has increased her involvement in education since her first term began. The mayor appointed people that she’s known for years [like Kathyrn Blackshear and Min. Wasim Mohammed] and has also taken recommendations for appointments from City Council President Frank Moran. You can see an interview she did here, to hear her talk about being mayor and her responsibility in public education. Redd is aligned with The State and local political leadership, in what she refers to as “a partnership”. She isn’t involved in the everyday activities, but uses her power and reputation as mayor when she wants too.
5. The Neo-Reformers
a. Parent Coalition for Excellent Schools – Led by Bryan Morton, whose wife Felicia Reyes Morton, is an advisory board member, this group supports school choice and organizes parents. According to their website, their mission is “empower, mobilize and strengthen the voice of every New Jersey parent to advocate for all children to receive a high quality education”. Working with the superintendent, they have organized parents to get Mastery to open a new high school in Camden. The group has talked to hundreds of parents and informed them about things happening in the school district.
b. Jersey CAN – Led by Michelle Mason, they support the school district in both philosophy and practice. On their website, you’ll find tips on PARCC and a fact sheet about the Renaissance schools and the law that created it. Their board includes a former JP Morgan CEO and former NJ Governor Kean. They don’t speak at meetings, but are often present. Their philosophy is aligned with the school district leadership. Beyond that, it is hard to determine what they actually do.
6. The Advisory Board – For every ounce of power they may have individually or collectively, it’s insignificant compared to the pound of potential power praticed in practi ally every other place in America. Unlike over 600 other school district in New Jersey this board does not vote on recommendations and the public does not vote for them. They are advisory, because they can give advice. At the March 2016 meeting, several members mentioned that they would like to have committee meetings and be more involved in the governance of the district.
7. The Academic Activists – They write, speak out, inform, and question the status quo. They don’t like charter schools or machine politics. They’re angry and represent a quiet movement against the growth of non-district schools. They say what the union won’t.
b. Stephen Danley – Rutgers professor by way of Oxford and the University of Pennsylvania, he has a blog where he often critiques Superintendent Rouhanifard, with links and examples showing Camden reflecting national trends. Read sample essay here.
c. Keith Benson, Jr. – Keith is an academic, working on his EdD dissertation this spring semester. He’s also a parent, a teacher at Camden High School, a former college athlete, and an activist. Most of his writing about education is published as commentary in the Courier Post. You can see a sample piece here.
8. The New Central Office – The central office is where crucial district-wide decisions are made. This office also creates curriculum, orders books, recruits teachers, updates the district website, etc. Although no one person holds tremendous power, as a group they certainly do. This list of names includes people that manage offices that impact every student and teacher in the district. Among their responsibilities right now are new projects such as reviewing every special education students IEP [Individualized Education Plan].
a. The promoted- the people that were in the district before the intervention:
- Katrina McCombs – Deputy Superintendent
- Andrew Bell – Chief Academic Officer
- Charae Thompson-Perry – Manager, Family Solutions
- Almar Dyer – Director, Career and Technical Education
b. The recruited – the people that Superintendent hired after the intervention: Brendan Lowe- Director of Communications [he is responsible for the YouTube page, positive press, and is now the temporary leader of the Family and Community Engagement office]:
- Joanna Lack – Chief Performance Officer
- Kevin Shafer – Chief Innovation Officer
- Onome Pela-Emore – Chief Operating Officer
- Tremaine Johnson – Senior Manager, Board Liaison and Strategic Partnerships
- Anna Shurak – Chief School Support Officer
- Brendan Lowe – Chief Communications Officer
9. Institutions, vendors, and organizations – There are non-profit and for profit organizations that do all sorts of things in school. This list isn’t comprehensive. There are too many. But these are some of the biggest and most influential.
a. Aramark – The district serves over 20,000 meals 180 days a year. The food is described as delicious or disgusting depending on the day you ask. Unlike the others in this category, they attend every board meeting, meet with students, and the administration and are committed to hiring Camden residents.
b. Center for Family Services – They do a lot. Young people from Camden and other places in South Jersey can get housing, counseling, or mentoring from one of their dozens of programs. They are partners with city government and the school district. They show up to community meetings. When the community came together to ask what could be done to decrease gang violence, CFS was the single organization that was considered.
c. Camelot – For years, teachers and principals did not know what to do with students that have discipline issues. Camelot is truly privatized education. They operate several programs.
d. Source 4 Teachers – Source 4 Teachers is now the exclusive provider of substitute teachers for Camden District Schools and many other districts in the region, including Philadelphia. One big complaint is that they do not train substitute teachers enough. Another is that when the district struggles to hire 100% certified teachers, substitutes do the maximum 20 days in one classroom. Often they do this with no lesson plan or guidance on curriculum and instruction.
e. The organization pragmatists – These are program managers, after school program coordinators, and service providers that participate in educating, coordinating, or supporting teachers and parents without any attachment to education politics. They stay out of the divisive issues. This would be organizations like The Neighborhood Center, Urban Promise, Future Scholars, Hopeworks ‘N Camden, and the Salvation Army.
10. The Legacy Activists
a. Save Our Schools – The parent organization of Save Our Camden Public Schools. Local representatives Gary Frazier and Mo’neke Ragsdale are among the local leaders of this statewide organization. They support traditional public schools, by educating and advocating for more resources for those schools and a stop to the expansion of charter and renaissance schools. Although there is little evidence that they impact decisions made in the central office, they do inform their followers of issues on the local and statewide level. They are now working with the NJEA to support Community Schools.
b. Camden Education Association – The teachers union in many districts is a loud and unsettling force. In Camden, they are soft spoken and have settled a contract with the current administration. Nonetheless, they represent teachers, security officers, and other positions in the public schools. They have the potential to be advocates for great teachers and rigorous instruction.