Access to education is a civil right and opens doors to opportunity. The Office of Finance, Grants, and Compliance for the Camden City School District manages a 350 million dollar budget serving over 8,000 in-district students and 8,000 served by other providers including charters and private schools. Effective financial management in our district is only achieved if it is aligned with the district’s priorities of improving student outcomes and providing our children with a high-quality and equitable education. Knowledge of and planning for financial supports and resources is key to the success of any district initiative. We need to connect the dots by making sure that innovative solutions to traditional problems are considered with the ultimate goal of improving student outcomes.
Innovative Solutions to Traditional Problems
High-performing school districts are strategic and nimble ones. We need to have a sense of urgency to improve, a commitment to figuring out what works and what doesn’t so we can invest in the former and stop doing the latter. How can we exhibit the traits of a solutions-oriented organization? As leaders in public education, we have all heard the phrase: “that isn’t how we do it here” or “this can’t be done that way”. We become a barrier if these are the “go-to” responses to initiatives and problems that need solving for students and parents. How can we empower our educators to organize resources strategically to best match student and school needs?
We shouldn’t have to be constrained to wait until the following school year to adapt. We shouldn’t be bound by the status quo and how we’ve always done things in the past. We can’t accept the current year decisions and resources as a “given.” Effective financial management consists of being able to execute what our educators and district leaders say needs to happen to serve our students while also staying compliant and in good standing with our mandated regulations. In turn, the finance divisions must pivot from telling schools and staff what to do and evolve into a customer-driven and transparent support system within the district.
Barriers and Solutions: A Case Study
Recently we embarked on a new initiative that targeted our Home Visits Pilot Program. Our work focused on this question: How might we build a program that significantly reduces chronic absenteeism by better (and more holistically) understanding and addressing the needs of our most chronically absent students and their families? With research provided by the Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers, we found that an indicative portion of our chronic absenteeism was related to a family health care issue. Also, we found that in many instances, parents were not aware of the support school and central office staff its partners provided. We partnered with Hopeworks ‘N Camden and Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers to provide professional learning to school and central office staff, provided incentives to school staff who were identified to conduct home visits, and encouraged building relationships to address the issue of chronic absenteeism.
In 2015-16, we conducted a small pilot with one student. By 2016-17, the initiative grew to provide support and resources to over 150 families district-wide, and next year the district program is projected to continue. My office aligned state and federal resources to the initiative and worked with the State of New Jersey to get state funding approved to support the funding by showing the correlation between the supports and lower absenteeism and higher student achievement.
Our dedication is making a difference for our students and families. Our graduation rate is up, and our dropout rate is down. Achievement data is showing tremendous gains in performance. School leaders and teachers feel more empowered and supported. School climate is improving. More parents and the larger community are engaged. We’re getting closer every day to reaching our ultimate goal of ensuring all students in Camden have access to an excellent school.
Access to Education is a Civil Right
Too many high-poverty communities do not receive their fair share of education dollars and support to benefit from educational opportunities. Funding equity ensures all students have a fair shot at a good education and escape the pitfalls of poverty. The focus should be on student outcomes. Just because a school receives generous funding does not mean the achievement of disadvantaged students will improve.
It is imperative to have access to financial data, analyze that data and then evaluate how funding and investments can be connected to raising student achievement.
Finance divisions do this by:
- Enabling feedback mechanisms for schools and departments
- Simplifying solutions and communication systems to share information and guidance
- Eliminating redundancy and delays with automation and reducing reliance on manual processes
- Establishing a district-wide mindset around the importance of financial discipline by providing ongoing training on fiscal best practices and financial management and holding school leaders accountable
If the financial management vision we have in Camden City School District is connected to critical supports and implemented as part of the comprehensive district transformation, it can provide the foundation for dramatic and meaningful reforms that will give our children an equitable chance to meet and exceed the standards established for them.
About the Author
Jamil Rivers is the Senior Director, Finance, Grants & Compliance for Camden City School District. She is responsible for administering an annual budget of $350 million and serving the funding needs for approximately 16,000 students and 1,800 employees. Before joining Camden City School District, Ms. Rivers served at the helm of leadership in roles such as Divisional Controller and Director of Finance. She is a proven change agent and leader and has provided financial advisory, financial analysis, and accounting management to financial restructurings and distressed organizations both in the non-profit and for-profit sectors. Her current focus is to provide students and teachers with the revenue support and financial information that are essential for learning and achievement in the 21st-century classroom, and equally important, providing school administrators and teachers with the reporting tools necessary for critical decision-making. Ms. Rivers grew up in Pennsauken, NJ, obtained a bachelor’s degree in Finance from Rutgers University and an MBA from Arcadia University.