Christie lauds Camden school superintendent

With Gov. Christie (left) and State Sen. Donald Norcross looking on, Camden's first state wrestling champ, Andrew Stevens, speaks at his school, Camden High.
With Gov. Christie (left) and State Sen. Donald Norcross looking on, Camden's first state wrestling champ, Andrew Stevens, speaks at his school, Camden High. (VIVIANA PERNOT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 11, 2014

Gov. Christie returned to Camden on Monday, one week after applauding the new department policing the city, to tout the work of its school superintendent 10 months into the state takeover of the district.

Christie spent most of the day with Camden children, beginning with a morning chat with first graders at Ulysses S. Wiggins Elementary School (no hardball questions but lots of adorable photo opportunities) and ending with a game of catch with Little Leaguers at North Camden's Pyne Poynt Park (some hardballs, more cute photos).

"It's always inspiring for me to come here and see the infinite possibilities for our students," Christie said at a midday news conference in the Camden High School gymnasium. "It redoubles my sense of obligation to make sure those possibilities have the potential to be realized."

Christie, who has made at least 20 public appearances in Camden since taking office, appointed Paymon Rouhanifard in August to lead the struggling district, where 23 of 26 schools were labeled failing.

Since Rouhanifard took the helm, the district has increased prekindergarten enrollment and fully launched a safe corridors program. Rouhanifard has faced criticism for his budget plan, in which he laid off 241 staff, 206 of them teachers, effective at the end of the school year to bridge a $75 million budget deficit. Ninety-four central office positions were eliminated.

Christie called the changes necessary, given the district's drop in enrollment over the years.

"You have to rightsize the district of Camden, and we simply had too many personnel. I have confidence in the job Paymon is doing here," he said.

Rouhanifard acknowledged the irony of hosting a largely celebratory event in a school that has been on the state's list for renovation for more than two years.

"Camden High is not the school it once was, from the current unacceptable state of this facility to the relative few who leave with a diploma," Rouhanifard said. "But we have tremendous faith. And so it goes with the district. There's an obligation not just to renovate Camden High but to rethink Camden City schools, and I think we can get there. Our district can be great again."

Flanked by Mayor Dana L. Redd, Camden County Police Chief Scott Thomson, State Sen. Donald Norcross (D., Camden) and other city leaders, Christie also announced a partnership between the state and the city's Center for Family Services' Promise Neighborhoods initiative, though details were scant.

The program was funded in 2012 by the Department of Education to enable CFS to create a pipeline of services in Cooper Plaza and Lanning Square based on the Harlem Children's Zone model. Christie said the partnership with the state would mirror similar initiatives in Newark and Paterson.

Merilee Rutolo, chief operating officer for CFS, said that while there was no additional financial commitment attached to the partnership, "we're working with them to see how we can be more strategic and form more effective partnerships."

On a trip to Creative Arts Morgan Village Academy at 2 p.m., Christie heard a Mozart piece performed by the school's nationally recognized concert choir. He also stopped in for a selection from the jazz band.

"Amazing," Christie told the band. "I want people to see all of the talent and drive that there is in Camden. Keep up the good work."

India Robinson, 16, took up piano when she started at the magnet school, which specializes in the creative arts. Now she's hooked and wants to continue it in college. "For me, I didn't always like school, but I always loved music," she told the governor.

Creative Arts principal David Coe-Brockington said last month that the school would consider breaking off from the district and applying for a charter to better cater to its nontraditional mission.

By late afternoon Christie was meeting 10-year-old boxer Jennifer Ramos, who trains at the North Camden Community Center, and then shooting hoops with some of the students who use the center's gym after school. Ramos was 1 for 12 from the foul line but kept at it.

Before heading to Philadelphia, where a swarm of protesters awaited him and Gov. Corbett, Christie played catch with some members of the North Camden Little League. He went back and forth with Angelica Fernandez, 13, a catcher who let very few get past her.

"I'm happy he showed up, and I hope he comes back for a game," she said.

Bryan Morton, who runs the league, thanked Christie for the new field at Seventh and Erie Streets, paid for partially with state Green Acres money - a fund that is nearing its end.

"I'm a full-fledged Democrat," Morton said as the field cleared following the event, "but I support a lot of what he's supporting here. When I give him credit, it's not just me making it up. There's a reason he keeps showing up. He cares about Camden."


jterruso@phillynews.com

856-779-3876 @juliaterruso

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