Camden Plans School for Homeless, At-Risk Youth

The Camden schools superintendent plans to open a residential public school for homeless and other high-risk children next year as part of a plan he announced Monday to improve education in a city that ranks among the poorest in the nation.

Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard, who was appointed superintendent at 32 in August by Gov. Chris Christie after the state took over the district, announced a long list of changes.

Among them were upgrading safety measures both at schools and on walking routes to them; upgrading school buildings; streamlining the school selection process for students and parents; improving pre-school enrollment; and increasing test scores and graduation rates.

Rouhanifard said he heard the suggestion for a public boarding school during a series of town hall meetings and focus groups he held during his first semester on the job.

While it would be a new program for Camden, residential schools have been tried in other cities. The SEED Foundation, which has applied to run schools in Camden, already has similar schools in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., and could end up running a proposed school in Camden.

Rouhanifard gave himself and his staff a relatively short timeline for making changes in a district accustomed to frequent change as activists and officials fret over what to do to improve schools where only about half the students who start ninth grade go on to graduate.

"We need to be held accountable," Rouhanifard said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Though some are long-term goals dealing with outcomes — such as increasing the high school graduation rate by 20 percentage points by 2019 — most are promises for action by his administration in shorter order.

For instance, Rouhanifard pledged a new school safety and security plan, to be rolled out next month.

According to a survey conducted for the district, half of all elementary-school students said they felt unsafe in their schools' hallways and bathrooms. He said school security staffers will undergo new training. Already, police are patrolling the most dangerous spots on routes to school.

Overall, he said, the plan was kept to a slim 18 pages because parents are its main audience, not academic experts. And several plans are aimed at making the school bureaucracy easier to navigate for parents.

Rouhanifard said he would try to get public funding to pay for the operations of a residential school in Camden and hopes to be able to get private funding to pay for needed buildings.

A public residential charter school opened in West Trenton in 1999, but it ran for only two years before it was shut down by the state for poor test scores and other issues.


Copyright AP - Associated Press
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