New Jersey is Taking Over Camden Schools -- A Case for Optimism

This Wednesday, CEO Michelle Rhee will give a keynote at the Brookings Institute on the role school districts play in raising student achievement. Accordingly, our thinkED blog will focus on the topic of school districts all this week.

Admittedly, when we found out that the state of New Jersey is planning to take over the Camden School District, I wasn't sure what to think. There was certainly an overriding feeling of knowing that something had to be done.

After all, 90 percent of its schools rank in the bottom 5 percent in performance statewide. Less than 20 percent of Camden students are proficient in language arts literacy, while only 30 percent of students are proficient in math -- and the city's graduation rate is just 49 percent. Clearly, it's time for a change.

However, we've seen this before; three other districts in New Jersey -- Paterson, Newark, and Jersey City -- are already under state control, and have few positive results to show for it. Even Camden itself has seen a state takeover before, and that failed to improve its schools dramatically.

So what's different this time?

Well, for one thing, this is the first time Governor Chris Christie, a leader known for championing bold changes on behalf of kids, has led a state takeover. He explained his rationale in clear and unambiguous terms:

"We're taking the lead because for too long the public school system in Camden has failed its children."

The fact that Governor Christie is so committed to education reform makes us hopeful that he will select a strong superintendent for Camden's schools. Leadership selection will be key in this takeover, not only in terms of getting the right person in charge, but also in terms of timing. The state needs to move quickly; there is no time to lose in Camden.

For this governance change to work, Governor Christie and Commissioner Chris Cerf must think broadly about what powers are available to the state when it comes to the state's schools and exercise the will to do whatever is necessary. Everything should be on the table -- simply replacing a local bureaucracy with a state one will not get the job done.

What else can New Jersey do to make sure that this takeover works?

Camden's new school leaders will need to carefully prioritize district reforms.

Because the new superintendent and management team will oversee both the educational and fiscal aspects of the district, they will have to plan strategically which changes should happen when.

Having been a part of a team taking over a dysfunctional district, I know firsthand that the initial instinct is to try to fix everything.

There is a lot to take on, but it cannot all be done at once. If there is going to be real change in Camden, the governor, commissioner, and new district leadership team need to prioritize the work in phases, building out a clear vision and goals through the first five years.

Communicating these goals clearly with the community is important as well. This will help to manage expectations regarding the changes on the way and enable everyone to track progress.

In planning the takeover, New Jersey can look to Louisiana for guidance. In 2005, devastated by the effects of Hurricane Katrina and in need of an emergency solution, Louisiana turned over a majority of the schools in the failing district of New Orleans to the state's Recovery School District (RSD).

Created in 2003, the RSD has served as the Louisiana's state-run district for the state's lowest-performing schools. Under this model, New Orleans schools have demonstrated tremendous gains since Superintendent Paul Vallas took charge of the district in 2007. When he took over, Vallas delineated a clear plan and vision for the RSD and carried that plan through. (There have been two RSD Superintendents since the tenure of Vallas).

Of course, the RSD model is not the only kind of state takeover option that Governor Christie should consider.

Again, what's important is that he act swiftly, consider all options on the table, and prioritize the work ahead.

By announcing that he's taking control, at least the governor is making the commitment to put student interests above those of the system. That's an encouraging first step.

This blog post originally ran on the StudentsFirst Policy Blog: thinkED.