The “Why” for Camden City School District

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Camden, NJ City Hall (Public Domain)
February 13, 2017

According to Simon Sinek, author of Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, employees in every organization know what they do and most know how they do it, but very few know why. Sinek argues that knowing and communicating why is critical for long-lasting success. Camden City School District (CCSD) is one of the fortunate organizations that not only has a clear what (educate children) and how (improve public schools and offer alternative schools), but also has a clear why. Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard eloquently communicates CCSD’s why in the opening message of a 2014 report: “to make school a dynamic, life-shaping force in young people’s lives…[and to] nurture our best learning environments and create new ones that address unmet needs.” While every school district seeks to prepare its students to succeed in college and/or careers, CCSD must also help students overcome significant obstacles: 95% of its students are eligible for free lunch, many need bilingual education, and all live in a community suffering from high unemployment (10.2% in October, 2016, twice as high as New Jersey as a whole) and high crime (ranked “America’s Most Dangerous City” in 2015 by NeighborhoodScout).

In a recent teleconference at the University of Pennsylvania’s Fels Institute of Government, Sinek clarified two major points in his book that directly relate to CCSD’s why. Sinek espoused that an organization can only have one why, and that this why is closely linked to the organization’s origin or re-birth. While Camden is one of the oldest cities in the United States, CCSD essentially began anew in 2013 when it was taken over by the State of New Jersey. As reported by USA Today, Governor Chris Christie authorized the state takeover of CCSD in response to years of low graduation rates (49% in 2012, second lowest in the state), poor performance (90% of CCSD schools were in the bottom 5% in the state), and declining enrollment. Camden Mayor Dana Redd, like many of her predecessors, was in favor of a state takeover. Resources were not the only problem. In 2011-2012, Camden spent $23,709 per student, well above the state average of $18,045 per student. New leadership was essential for CCSD to improve.

Governor Christie’s appointee, Superintendent Rouhanifard, focused his early efforts on expanding school choice through the aptly named Renaissance schools. In 2015, Rouhanifard converted five of Camden’s most troubled public schools into Renaissance schools administered by nationally recognized nonprofits: Mastery Charter, Uncommon Schools, and the KIPP Foundation. Renaissance schools are a hybrid of public and charter schools - they are publicly funded, guarantee spots for children in their catchment area, and work closely with the school district. In Camden, Renaissance schools serve about the same percentage of special education students as public schools. Rouhanifard announced that quality education was a “basic civil right” and that “students don’t have forever to wait for their schools to improve.”

In 2015-2016, Renaissance and Charter schools accounted for about 14% and 28% of CCSD’s total enrollment respectively. This fall, the number of Renaissance schools has grown to nine, and their enrollment could potentially reach half of the districts roughly 16,000 students. Critics of the imposition of Renaissance schools call for more community input; some parents are not happy about the closure/consolidation of neighborhood schools. Others question if Renaissance school’s tougher disciplinary rules lead to more suspensions and expulsions. Nonetheless, CCSD has experienced some real gains. The graduation rate has increased to 64% district-wide, pre-K enrollment is approaching 100%, and test scores are up modestly.

CCSD is working hard to pass Sinek’s “celery test.” Sinek illustrates this test with a grocery-shopping example— people who are committed to healthy eating only buy healthy food. CCSD demonstrates its authenticity by allocating its resources in accordance with its why: to serve as a dynamic, life-changing force that nurtures potential in all students. Despite undergoing several rounds of layoffs and cost-cutting measures, CCSD has invested in new schools such as the Medical Arts High School. Eds and Meds is one of the few growth sectors in Camden. CCSD has also hired additional reading specialists and created new operations manager positons to allow principals to focus on improving learning outcomes. If Simon Sinek is right, then CCSD’s adherence to its why should enable CCSD to continue improving opportunities for its students well into the future.


I would like to thank Wayles Wilson (Chief Operating Officer of School Support at CCSD and Fels MGA 2009) for providing me with the opportunity to serve as a Special Project Manager in the Camden City School District from August 2016 to January 2017. I would also like to thank to Fels Lecturer General Darrell Jones for arranging the teleconference with Simon Sinek.

Fels Institute of Government

The Fels Institute of Government
3814 Walnut St. 
Philadelphia, PA 19104

(215) 898-7326

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