Late last month, Governor Christie announced a new state plan for “partnership” and “intervention,” otherwise known as a state takeover, of Camden public schools. The state will assume control of a district that serves over 13,700 children where 90 percent of students are in the bottom 5 percent in academic performance statewide and years of struggle have yielded no clear signs of improvement.
“We’re taking the lead because for too long, the public school system in Camden has failed its children,” Christie said. “Each day that it gets worse, we’re failing the children of Camden, we’re denying them a future, we’re not allowing them to reach their full potential.
He was flanked by Camden mayor Dana Redd, who agreed with the need for drastic action. “The current status quo is failing our kids,” she said. “We cannot wait any longer.”
Meanwhile the Camden Board of Education, which will now become an advisory board, had nearly completed its search for a new superintendent . Selecting a superintendent who will embrace dramatic change will be critical to the governor and mayor’s plan. Governor Christie did, after all, offer up New Orleans as a model for the magnitude of change he wants to see in Camden.
In considering the possibilities of this new “rockstar” superintendent, we’ve been thinking a lot about Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute’s latest book, “Cage-Busting Leadership.” In his research, Hess travels the country to meet extraordinary school leaders and concludes that while certain policies are burdensome to successful school administration, these “cage-busting” leaders prove that grit and determination can cut through bureaucratic red tape and produce results for kids.
We’ve all seen remarkable cage-busting leaders in action—teachers, school leaders, administrators and superintendents who tirelessly pursue excellence and beat the odds every day. Those types of cage-busters are clearly needed in Camden.
But they aren’t all Camden needs. As 50CAN President Marc Porter Magee points out in his guest post on Hess’s blog, cage-busting leadership must be coupled with reforming the system so that the positive effects cage-busting leaders have on student learning can continue even after they’re gone.
Porter Magee uses two examples from his experience in Connecticut – one extraordinary traditional public school principal and one extraordinary charter school principal – to illustrate that changing policy is key to creating a lasting culture of academic success. Both leaders were dynamic, dedicated and instituted in-school policies that almost immediately led to academic gains for students.
The big difference was when they left. The charter school, which had the flexibility to codify these policies, maintained its level of academic excellence. The traditional public school, absent its cage-busting leader, reverted back to its former low levels of academic achievement.
We’re looking forward to finding out who the next superintendent of Camden Schools will be, and we urge the governor to choose someone who will innovate and invest in our schools so that every Camden student can get the first-rate education they deserve. And here at JerseyCAN we’ll be hard at work conducting the research and policy analysis this new leader and other policymakers will need to bring about real change in Camden that will last for years to come.