Across the Benjamin Franklin Bridge from Philadelphia sits Camden, New Jersey — a city on the rise or in ruins, depending on who you talk to. Once a hub of manufacturing, those jobs left or became obsolete. In recent years, the city has been most frequently mentioned in national conversations about ravaging crime and murder rates, tent cities and political corruption. Yes, Camden has had its challenges. But, it also has its leaders who are working to reclaim the pride and promise of its greatest assets: the city’s young people.
Leading the charge is Camden City School District Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard. Boyish by look and bookish by nature, the UNC-Chapel Hill alumnus is preparing for one of his most daunting challenges yet: serving as assistant coach of the Camden City High School boys’ basketball team.
“We look really good,” the fifth-year superintendent said of the Panthers, who lost the state championship last year by two points. “We have an even better team this year.” Paymon negotiated a deal with his wife, who is expecting their second child in the spring, to coach six days of practices and games a week.
The Panthers are without a home court for a few years as Camden High closed for renovations last summer. “The High” is a point of pride in this working-class city where its tower overlooked the streets that led to the factories of RCA, Campbell’s Soup and NY Shipbuilders. The school and the tower, aged and in disrepair, will be replaced by a $136 million campus in 2021. It will be part of the Camden that is working to catch up to the future. For now, classes and practices are held at a local middle school.
“I wanted to do something that allowed me to get closer to our kids and, on a personal level, take on a new challenge. And this came to mind,” Paymon said. “I get to do something that is directly tied to what I did as a teacher [early in his career, he taught sixth grade in New York City’s West Harlem neighborhood]: Coaching is teaching, just in a different format. I’ve really enjoyed this, bringing me back to what connected me to education to begin with.”
That connection began more than 30 years ago when Paymon, his parents and brother left Shiraz, Iran, after being persecuted for their Baha’i faith during the nascent years of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Before they left, other extended family members had already been imprisoned and executed.
They arrived home one night to find all of their belongings, including family pictures, taken from the home. Their photographic existence had been erased. Their physical existence was in jeopardy, so they fled to Pakistan, living as refugees before settling in a small town outside of Nashville, Tennessee, thanks to the U.S. immigration policies of the Carter and Reagan eras.
“[My parents] told us over and over again that if it weren’t for their education, they would not have been able to overcome those challenges dealing with a very corrupt government that systematically persecuted those who were minorities,” said Paymon, whose parents were an engineer and a chemist in their home country.
In 2013, Paymon was appointed the fourth Camden superintendent in two years and the 13th in 20 years. He was given authority over turning around the city’s school district, listed as the home of 23 of New Jersey’s 26 lowest-performing schools. And he was 31 years old.
To be successful, Paymon knew he had to become a Camden insider fast. He started meeting formally and informally with community members. He knocked on doors to recruit preschoolers into classrooms. He learned the rhythms of the streets during his early-morning runs — no music, just the sounds of the city. He attended high school football games. He moved within walking distance of the district office.
“From the first day until today, the easiest way I think about building trust is being accessible and humanizing the work, and that means being out of the central office as much as possible,” Paymon said. “Camden is small enough that whatever neighborhood we’re in, we know who the faith leaders are, who the community leaders are. I’ll just be walking around the city and recognize the parents of students, which is really cool. I love that about our district.”
Camden City School District serves about 6,000 students, more than half of whom are Hispanic. The city has approximately 77,000 residents living in nine square miles and 19 distinct neighborhoods. The poverty rate is 40 percent, according to the 2015 U.S. Census, and the median family income is $25,000.
After 70 community meetings during his first 100 days at the helm, Paymon and his team released the “Camden Commitment,” a list of five promises to help all local families access excellent schools:
Promise 1: Safe Students, Safe Schools
Promise 2: 21st-Century School Buildings
Promise 3: Excellent Schools — Student Support
Promise 3b: Excellent Schools — Great Teaching and Learning
Promise 4: Parent Engagement
Promise 5: Central Office Effectiveness
In 2015, the district released the second phase of the Camden Commitment, known as “All Schools Rise,” doubling down on — and in some cases, extending — the reach of the goals. Demonstrating that transparency matters, the district produced quarterly progress reports to the community in multiple languages.
Camden also provided professional development for all of its staff and individualized coaching for teachers and principals, built and staffed parent centers, waived fees for background checks required of parent volunteers, created restorative justice alternatives to out-of-school suspensions, focused on social emotional learning, launched a pilot based on trauma-informed care, designed a unified enrollment process for all public schools in Camden and opened seven “Renaissance” schools in partnership with local public charter schools, where all neighborhood students are able to attend.
Other decisions were tougher, like the cuts that were made to spending and staff to close a $75 million deficit. But despite the authority he has, on paper, he worked hard to ensure that those without authority were weighing in and shaping the work.
“What I think is important to call out is continuity, stability, building our roots and playing the long game. For us in Camden, what that also necessitates is being mindful of how we’re serving our most marginalized kids — kids who need significant mental health support,” Paymon said.
“Sometimes when we’re talking about transformational change, we’re calling out improvements in test scores that don’t always highlight students that have significant disabilities, mental healthcare needs and other needs. I want to use my platform as a leader to call out the importance of that work, and to recognize that requires a long-term commitment to do better.”
Camden City School District’s graduation rate went from 46 percent in 2012 to 70 percent in 2016. Its dropout rate dropped by half during that same period. Math and literacy proficiency scores doubled. Yet, at 11.4 percent and 15.7 percent, respectively, they still lag far behind the rest of the state. “By every measure, our schools today are better than they were four and a half years ago,” he said. “We still have a very long way to go, but we are fundamentally better today.”
The long game includes losses. “It’s a big little city. Everyone knows everybody. When there’s trauma, it has a massive ripple effect.” Paymon has attended nine student funerals since becoming superintendent, and there were even more students who died at the hands of Camden’s violent streets. One of them was Jameer Bullard, a high school junior and football player who was shot and killed in 2015. “That’s a student that every other kid in the district knew directly or indirectly. That traumatic loss impacts students in the classroom and outside of the classroom.”
He understands that teachers, principals and staff can’t control what happens outside of the school doors, but they can help students cope with the challenges they face.
“The root of our challenge is, I believe, institutional racism — which begat poverty — and the role the post-industrial decline played in Camden,” Paymon said. “You simply can’t ignore it.”
Paymon now lives in a building that used to be part of the city’s heyday. He and his team are working to create conditions where students can thrive, where they can work in the tech companies that are sprouting up and where they can choose where they will live and what they will do, no matter the challenges they may face. And the way they are doing that is by offering strong academic supports and a broader range of opportunities for them to learn and grow beyond the classroom.
“I don’t believe there’s one data point that allows you to track success at the big-picture level. I believe in a holistic educational experience where students learn resilience and how to overcome adversity. For some kids, that’s in the classroom. For others, it’s in extracurricular activities like chess or sports,” said Paymon, sounding as much a coach as a superintendent. “We want to ensure our kids have agency in life beyond high school. So, we want every kid to have access to a high-quality school. From there, we want every kid to have meaningful opportunities in life.”
And, of course, he wants the Panthers to win.