Camden schools chief chairs his first meeting

Paymon Rouhanifard (center) says he'll put together a list of strategic priorities by the end of December.
Paymon Rouhanifard (center) says he'll put together a list of strategic priorities by the end of December. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 26, 2013

Camden's state-appointed school superintendent, Paymon Rouhanifard, led his first advisory school board meeting Tuesday night, emphasizing safety and congratulating the district on a successful start to the year.

Rouhanifard, appointed four weeks ago by state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf and Gov. Christie following the state takeover of the Camden School District, has visited 21 of 26 schools. He plans to visit the remaining five this week.

He opened the public portion of the meeting with remarks addressing skepticism from some who have criticized his lack of classroom experience. Rouhanifard is a Teach for America alumnus who worked on Wall Street for a few years before being hired as chief of staff for a former deputy chancellor of the New York City School District.

Most recently, he served as chief strategy and innovation officer for the Newark public schools. He has a bachelor's degree in economics and political science and is not a certified principal or superintendent.

"I've got a lot to learn, and I'm going to tell you that right now," Rouhanifard said, his suit jacket off and blue dress-shirt sleeves rolled up. "What I don't know, I don't know, and I'm here to listen. I'm here to evaluate. I'm excited for hundreds of more conversations."

Rouhanifard said he had cleared his schedule to visit schools and meet with administrators, teachers, and school leaders during his first 100 days, and would put together a list of strategic priorities by the end of December.

Camden's students started the year with $5.3 million in new textbooks and resources to clean up schools, some of which a third of students last year described as "dirty" in an end-of-year survey.

Fourteen schools also started the year with new breakfast programs, and three introduced new technology programs.

A major topic of the meeting was school safety on the heels of a shooting earlier this month near Ninth Street and Ferry Avenue. A shooter fired 14 rounds toward the Branch Village housing complex. One bullet struck a school bus carrying children in the HeadStart program. The shooting also sent the two area elementary schools in the process of dismissing students into lockdown.

Rouhanifard announced a two-pronged approach to school safety, one addressing routes to and from schools and one focused on security practices within school walls. He cited a survey from the end of the last school year in which half the students at 10 of the district's schools said they did not feel safe in hallways and bathrooms.

Mayor Dana L. Redd and Camden County Deputy Police Chief Joseph Williams, who also attended Tuesday's meeting, said the police department would work on a safe corridors program and had started mapping the routes to and from bus stops and walking routes at each school to increase police presence in those areas.

"There's going to be three layers to get to your children," Williams said. "We want it so they don't have to see gang members or hear shots fired. The priority is making kids feel safe, having boots on the ground."

Anthony Bland, the state's school safety director, outlined the Safer Schools for a Better Tomorrow program, which offers state technical training and assistance to schools based on newly released minimum requirements.

One requirement says all schools must have a security drill within 15 days of the start of classes. "Emergencies can happen at any time," Bland said. "We can't eliminate senseless acts of violence or evil, but we can be prepared and we can be ready."



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