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Coffee Break: Camden’s Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard on Escaping Iran, Community and Hooping

Coffee Break: Camden’s Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard on Escaping Iran, Community and Hooping_5fbec2b4ca3f5.jpeg
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Coffee Break: Camden’s Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard on Escaping Iran, Community and Hooping

Coffee Break: Camden’s Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard on Escaping Iran, Community and Hooping

The Camden City Schools in New Jersey are, on paper, a state-run school district. But if you visit the city, talk to families, or read about the improvements there, there’s more to it.

Since Paymon Rouhanifard was appointed by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie as the superintendent in 2013, he’s focused on building a plan that’s rooted in what the families he serves have told him they want from their schools.

The community is now in the second phase of that plan, the Camden Commitment. There has been steady progress, with an emphasis on improving district schools, opening new Renaissance Schools and making the process of finding the right school much easier for families. And it’s happening with little of the rancor that’s hung heavy over similar changes in Newark—another state-run district.

Paymon shares a little about his long route to Camden, and how he plans to make a lasting contribution to the community he now calls home.

Tea, coffee, what’s your style?

Coffee. Two cups every morning.

How has your family’s background, your education and your childhood influenced your vision as the leader of Camden’s schools?

I was born in Iran, but because of religious persecution my family fled as refugees to multiple countries. When I was 5 years old, we eventually settled in suburban Tennessee. There, my parents made enormous sacrifices to provide me and my brother the opportunity to receive an excellent education and grow up in a stable, supportive environment.

Seeing my parents struggle so my brother and I could attend good schools and chart our own path to college deeply impacted me. Even though my dad’s college degrees from Iran didn’t transfer to the United States, he persevered by first working at a gas station and then as a door-to-door repairperson before eventually starting a small HVAC business. I learned the value of education, and I committed to doing what I could to expand other students’ opportunity to go to great schools and fulfill our country’s promise of attaining the American Dream.

And that’s what brought me to Camden. Our kids here deserve a great education. Yet they’ve been fundamentally denied the same opportunities I was afforded due to a long history of poverty, institutional racism and systemic dysfunction that have scarred Camden for decades.

Yes, as an immigrant in a city that’s roughly 50 percent Latino, as a former English-language learner and as a part of a family that struggled to make ends meet, I have several ways to relate to our students and families. But the challenges we are faced with are steep and complex, which is why I believe we need to move so urgently to ensure our incredible students and families are provided the equity in opportunity that is owed to them.

What teacher or mentor has had the biggest influence on you and your work?

The reality is I can’t answer with just one person! I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have been mentored, coached and supported by a long line of amazing people, starting with my own parents.

In high school, I was very much inspired by our principal, Mr. Gioia. It was a tough transition as I transferred from another town as a sophomore, whereas all the other students had known each other since middle school. Yet Mr. Gioia always took an interest in me, encouraging me in the classroom and pushing me to participate in sports and extracurricular activities like mock trial and Youth Legislature. We still keep in close contact to this day.

Talk about how, as a state-appointed superintendent and the city’s 13th in the past 20 years, you’ve connected with the Camden community.

I’ve made an effort to get out of the office and into our schools and community. I live in Camden with my wife and son and regularly attend sporting events and musical performances to support our students and families. I go door-to-door to meet parents, grandparents and guardians and learn more about how we can better serve their students.

I believe families see that and appreciate the effort. But more importantly, it’s critical as a public official to know your constituents and best understand how to build policies to address their needs.

What’s impressed you the most about the Camden community and its commitment to better schools for their children?

Camden is an extraordinarily resilient community. Despite all the challenges this city has experienced, our students and their families have kept fighting for what they deserve and I have so much respect for that.

Every June, we hold an event called Remarkable Graduates to honor our seniors who have overcome extraordinary adversity in order to make it through high school with postsecondary plans. There is rarely a dry eye in the house as each of these students is honored. It’s my favorite time of the year.

A 2014 Wall Street Journal article about Camden talked about how you sometimes play basketball with students and staff. Describe your game. Are you more Steph Curry or Lebron James?

Ha! I’m terrible. Scrappy, but terrible. And I’m close to retiring, as I seem to get injured every time we hit the court. The Camden High School team is chasing its fourth straight trip to the state championship game, so I’m mostly a fan these days!

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