Christie names new schools superintendent in Camden

Paymon Rouhanifard with state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf (left).
Paymon Rouhanifard with state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf (left). (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 23, 2013

A 32-year-old education strategist who has worked in the public school systems in Newark, N.J., and New York City was introduced Wednesday by Gov. Christie as superintendent of Camden's now-state-run school system.

If approved by the New Jersey Board of Education, as expected, Paymon Rouhanifard would become Camden's new schools chief just in time for the start of classes Sept. 9. This will be the district's first school year under full state control.

Rouhanifard, who was working as chief strategy and innovation officer for the Newark public schools before Christie named him to Camden, will report to state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf and not the local school board.

Cerf, who selected him from more than 100 applicants, called Rouhanifard a "transformational leader." The appointment was met with skepticism from some in the district who thought he did not have the right experience.

Rouhanifard was born in Iran. Amid revolutionary upheaval there, his family fled to the United States when he was 7.

He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a bachelor's degree in economics and political science.

Rouhanifard spent two years as a sixth-grade teacher at School 192 in West Harlem with Teach for America. He then worked as an analyst for Goldman Sachs and private-equity firm AEA Investors L.P. for four years before being hired in 2009 as chief of staff to the deputy chancellor in the New York City Department of Education. He rose through the department and became CEO of the Office of Portfolio Management.

Camden School Board president Kathryn Blackshear called Rouhanifard's life the story of many children in Camden. When he and his family emigrated from Iran, they were homeless, penniless, and spoke no English.

"It speaks right to Camden," Blackshear said. "What he went through and where he is now, it excited me."

Rouhanifard attributed much of his own success to his parents' commitment to education.

Current and former Camden district employees and board members, however, criticized Rouhanifard's scant classroom experience and his lack of experience as a principal or superintendent.

"I don't think it's what Camden needs. . . . It makes me really sad," said Kathryn Ribay, a Collingswood High School teacher who resigned from the Camden Board of Education on the day the state announced its takeover in March.

"We wanted someone who had an educational background, not policy background," Ribay said Wednesday. She added that when the board held its own superintendent search, members were looking for someone with at least a master's degree and experience in managing an urban district.

That search, which resulted in three finalists, came to a halt in March when the state announced its takeover.

As a Teach for America alumna who taught in Camden, Ribay said it was good to have new blood in the district, but said the new superintendent had only a bachelor's degree and little teaching experience, and would be leading a district that has just had an influx of first-time principals.

"They are bringing in so many first-time principals without bringing experienced administrators," she said.

While a master's degree is typically a requirement to be superintendent of a school district, a state-run district requires only a bachelor's degree, Department of Education spokesman Justin Barra said.

Rouhanifard will receive a provisional certification for superintendent while he goes through a two-year residency program in which he will be assigned a mentor by the New Jersey Association of School Administrators, Barra said.

Brimm Medical Arts High School teacher Karen Borrelli also said experience was essential to navigating a district as troubled as Camden.

"If I need heart surgery, do I chose a resident or an established, experienced surgeon?" Borrelli said. "Why do we settle for less for our children?"

Still, she said she hoped Rouhanifard would be successful.

"Knowing it's the governor and Cerf who appointed him," Borrelli said, "he's going to be under the microscope."

Christie called the selection of Rouhanifard another step in the "fight against a broken system." Camden has 23 of the 26 worst-rated schools in the state.

"Zip code, family income, country of origin are unfortunately factors that ultimately determine a child's life trajectory even before that child is born," Rouhanifard said after he was introduced outside the H.B. Wilson Family School in Camden.

Rouhanifard, who lives in the Bronx, said he and his wife would move to Camden.

The announcement came nearly two months after the state took over the district and Camden County School Superintendent Peggy Nicolosi was appointed interim superintendent.

Under full state intervention, which went into effect June 25, Nicolosi assumed the powers of the local board, whose role became advisory.

Rouhanifard will head a shrinking district as charter schools compete for the city's 16,000 students. This fall, 11 charter schools will be operating in the city, educating 4,000 students.


Contact Julia Terruso at 856-779-3876 or jterruso@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @juliaterruso.

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