Camden protesters oppose superintendent's plan

Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard at the meeting at Octavius V. Catto Elementary School. "We want to move with a sense of urgency here," the state-appointed leader said. (David M Warren / Staff Photographer)
Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard at the meeting at Octavius V. Catto Elementary School. "We want to move with a sense of urgency here," the state-appointed leader said. (David M Warren / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 30, 2014

About 60 teachers, parents, and community members protested proposed changes in the Camden School District in freezing temperatures before a school board meeting Tuesday night.

Chanting "Whose schools? Our schools!" and "Fired up, ready to go," the crowd walked from Camden High School to the Preston O.R. Toliver II Broadcast Center, 1600 Pine St., where the meetings are held and streamed.

The group was mostly against the proposal for more "Renaissance" schools - publicly funded, privately managed charter-like schools. The proposed increase was announced as part of state-appointed Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard's long-term plan for Camden on Monday night.

The superintendent has said no specific school closures or takeover decisions will be made without consulting the community.

At the presentation Monday night, community members stayed until 9 p.m. to eat dinner and talk with Rouhanifard.

Tuesday's protest, publicized days before Rouhanifard released his plan, was more combative.

"The writing is on the wall," said Gregory Christopher, a counselor at East Camden Middle School, who held up a sign reading "public education, not for sale."

"We believe we should have a say in the education of the children of Camden, and we don't believe we've been included," said Christopher. "Our major concern is, there's no evidence that other districts taken over by the state have done any better or that Renaissance schools have succeeded."

The broadcast center only holds 85 people, leaving about 50, including some students, standing outside.

"We're citizens and we have things to say and can't even get in to be heard," said Carmen Cooper, a member of the New Jersey Education Association, who was waiting outside.

The meetings are broadcast on the public access channel, but the only way to speak during the public comment period is to attend the meeting.

Rouhanifard's plan calls for up to three buildings to become Renaissance-operated (and renovated by 2015), and two newly constructed schools, including the already approved KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy, to break ground.

On Monday, Rouhanifard encouraged people to not think of charter and Renaissance schools on one side and district schools on another, and instead think about "creating high-quality schools for the parents and students who attend them."

That sentiment was dismissed by Larry Zahn, special education teacher at H.B. Wilson Family School. "It's smoke and mirrors. If you dangle something shiny and new in front of people, they're going to jump at it, but bringing people from outside in to run schools and outside teachers to teach is just a chance for corporations to make money off of education."

Rouhanifard's plan also calls for the state Schools Development Authority to fund renovations to three schools, including Camden High School, which has long been promised improvements by the agency.

Rouhanifard said he would meet with newly appointed SDA director Charles McKenna on Wednesday to discuss renovations to Camden High.


jterruso@phillynews.com

856-779-3876 @juliaterruso

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