Gov. Christie introduces new Camden superintendent

August 21, 2013 3:58:50 PM PDT
Gov. Chris Christie picked a onetime Iranian refugee with a compelling personal story to turn around Camden's troubled schools, the latest move from a governor determined to put his imprint on public education in New Jersey.

The selection of Paymon Rouhanifard as superintendent of the city's public schools was announced Wednesday, months after the state assumed control of the failing district and the same day the state's largest teachers union began running TV commercials criticizing the governor for pushing more student testing. Christie dismissed the ads as more of the same from a group long opposed to him.

"Those of you who see me often know there is no issue that matters more to me than this issue," Christie said. "Equal opportunity is only words on a page if it isn't backed up by a quality education for every child who wants it."

The state assumed control of the schools in June in the crime-plagued city of 80,000 on the Delaware River across from Philadelphia. Ninety percent of the district schools are in the bottom 5 percent in performance statewide. The four-year graduation rate in 2012 was 49 percent. Of those who do graduate, only one out of four do so by passing the state's high school exam. Only 2 percent of the students score 1550 or higher on their SATs, a metric defined as indicating a high likelihood of college success and completion.

Rouhanifard, 32, fled Iran as a child with his parents and young brother after seeing the family stripped of their home and belongings and relatives tortured and executed. The family spent a year in a Pakastani refugee camp before resettling in the United States. When he began first grade outside of Nashville, he spoke no English. He has been a teacher in West Harlem and held administrative positions in New York City and Newark schools. Like Christie, he believes in school choice.

"The American Dream can thrive anywhere in this country, even in our most impoverished communities, and that certainly holds true for Camden," he said. "All of Camden's students should be in a high-quality school."

Christie has had mixed results so far on education. His administration has seen the end of lifetime teacher tenure, and has made some in-roads on merit-based pay, but has not seen success with school vouchers, which would allow students in failing districts to attend a different public school, or a parochial school, with taxpayer money. The administration has also been thwarted in its attempt to change the way state aid is distributed to public school districts.

Camden is the fourth district to come under state control. The others are Paterson, Jersey City and Newark, the state's largest city.

In Camden, Education Commissioner Chris Cerf said changes have already begun. Instructional and administrative staff have been cut, and 70 teaching vacancies filled. A comprehensive math and reading curriculum has been established, meal plans expanded and 250 computers have been added to classrooms. Perhaps most significantly, an effort to re-enroll recent dropouts has begun. Cerf said 10 percent of the 345 students who quit school in the past two years have committed to returning this fall, in the program's first week.

The state is the main source of funding for the Camden school system. Christie said a report last August assessing the needs of Camden's schools convinced him more needed to be done in the city, which has 16,000 schoolchildren, including 4,000 in charter schools.

Meanwhile, the union said its new ads are part of a long-running campaign to promote public education. Christie dismissed them as another attack from a group he has been at odds with since he first campaigned for governor four years ago.

The governor allocated a record $9 billion for public schools in the current state education budget, which he said shows his commitment to schools.

One commercial, financed by the New Jersey Education Association, features a teacher saying it's sad to see public schools turning into "test-taking factories."

Christie has pushed for public education measures that include basing teacher compensation partly on student achievement. A landmark teacher contract in Newark establishes a merit-based bonus system paid for with a donation from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

Another ad criticizes "Trenton politicians" for big cutbacks in school funding and for aid increases of only $1 in some districts this year. The second spot doesn't criticize Christie by name, but a union statement on the ad said the cutbacks came during Christie's first year in office.


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