New Jersey governor Chris Christie announced earlier this week that Paymon Rouhanifard, the former chief strategy and innovation officer in Newark, will lead the 13,700-student Camden school district.
Camden’s school district was taken over by the state earlier this spring. The Newark school district is also run by the state of New Jersey, so a Newark-to-Camden transplant is not so surprising.
Rouhanifard came to Newark in 2012. He was previously the chief executive officer of portfolio management in the New York City school district. He taught with Teach For America in Harlem (check out this ancient article about Rouhanifard’s decision to join TFA from the University of North Carolina’s alumni magazine!) and then worked at Goldman Sachs before returning to the education world.
Rouhanifard also has a striking personal story: His family immigrated from Iran and lived in refugee camps when he was a child, and he entered the 1st grade as an English-language learner. New Jersey governor Chris Christie, a Republican, played up Rouhanifard’s striking tale on Wednesday:
I think you can tell from his personal story that this is someone who understands challenge," Christie said on Wednesday. "And I think you can tell from the eloquence of his remarks that his parents' commitment to him and his brother for a better education paid off. And he stands here today as a successful example of what can happen for someone who at one point in his life was homeless, penniless, and didn't speak English. And today he stands up here as a leader of a school district who has articulated a vision for the future that is uplifting for all of us."
Here’s a video from the announcement earlier this week:
The Camden district had been in the midst of a search for a new leader even before the change in governance structure, but the takeover put that new candidate in an even brighter spotlight. The governor’s office said that Rouhanifard was chosen from a pool of 100 candidates.
The state has brought two new charter schools to the city, turned over another school to Democracy Prep, a charter operator, and continued the development of plans to bring a new KIPP school to the district. Perhaps Rouhanifard’s experience working with charter schools in New York City’s portfolio worked in his favor.
The governor’s office is already touting its work on everything from curriculum to facilities in Camden. For instance, it’s brought in three former superintendents in the state to work in the district; not renewed the contracts of 50 teachers but doubled the size of the substitute teaching pool; recovered 35 students through a new dropout recovery initiative; and is expanding a free breakfast program.
That’s a lot of activity for a takeover that just officially began in June. The state has had authority in school districts in Jersey City, Paterson, and Newark for decades. I looked into the state of state takeovers in the Garden State for Education Week earlier this summer.
A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.