How a district improves academics – against all odds.

June 25, 2018 BY Autumn Miller

Camden, New Jersey’s model for progress can be repeated.

Academic performance in Camden, New Jersey has come a remarkable way in the last five years. But from the start, the odds were against them. It’s among the state’s poorest school districts with around 95 percent of students qualifying for free or reduced-price meals. And in 2013, “only 1.4 percent of the city’s SAT-takers met the benchmark for college readiness” per The New York Times.

From then to today, “the dropout rate has been cut in half, and math and literacy scores have more than doubled over the past two years,” reports The 74 Million. And while their proficiency numbers (which have tripled from 2013) still have a ways to go to meet statewide averages, the district’s progress is undeniable.

A large force behind the turnaround is Paymon Rouhanifard, the district’s outgoing superintendent. His reforms started with a “portfolio model” mix of traditional public schools and public charters. At both, the programing has been about “building neighborhood schools” – whether they’re charters or not. “It’s not like choice for the sake of choice,” says Rouhanifard. Instead, Camden has focused on schools that work for its neighborhoods – addressing their unique challenges. That, in turn, attracts families to their schools and keeps students there, learning.

Takeaways from The 74 Million’s interview with Rouhanifard explain what has been key to Camden’s success – and provide a blueprint other districts can follow.

Camden’s model for academic growth:

  1. Fair, transparent access.
    Unlike some charter schools under fire for excluding minorities, Camden has placed a high priority on fair & transparent access in all their schools. There’s “a lot of intentionality that goes into maintaining our Camden enrollment program,” Rouhanifard says.The School Finder tool we at SchoolMint created for them has helped with that. As a one-stop website where parents can easily research all of the district’s schools and make informed decisions, School Finder is designed to level the playing field for all families, regardless of their resources. Fully multilingual to support English and Spanish speakers, the mobile-friendly platform reduces the traditional language and income barriers families face during the school enrollment process.
  2. Meet families where they are.
    In Camden, that means “wraparound support services like trauma-informed care and mental health clinics,” says Rouhanifard. And since 20% of low-income Americans only have internet access via smartphones, we’ve partnered with the district to make the entire enrollment experience for families in Camden – from research to application to registration to re-enrollment – mobile-friendly.Rouhanifard knows these measures “don’t necessarily lead to having test score gains overnight, but you’re absolutely doing what’s right by [the] community.”
  3. Unify, not divide.
    Rouhanifard actively engaged the community from all angles to build a broad base of support for the reforms. Today, traditional schools, charters, non-profits, and police are working together, and The New York Times notes by winning support in the traditional schools, Rouhanifard managed “transformation without the rancor that has frustrated change in other cities.”When different types of schools work together as one force in the community, it’s easier for families to engage with the school system – and the important tie between family engagement and academic progress goes without saying. We’ve partnered with Camden to develop a citywide Unified Enrollment System that brings their traditional and charter schools together under one single application and assignment process.

Despite the odds, Camden has made significant academic gains. And just as importantly, they’re doing right by their community to get there.