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Great Immigrants

Paymon Rouhanifard
Former Camden Schools Chief, and Cofounder and CEO, Propel America
Born in:
Iran

Following the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, Paymon Rouhanifard’s family was subjected to state-sponsored discrimination and violence for practicing the Baha’i faith. Rouhanifard’s mother’s uncle was executed, his father was fired from his job, and the family’s home was stripped of all belongings. The Rouhanifards arrived in the United States as refugees in 1986, when Paymon was five, settling near Nashville, Tennessee. An engineer in Iran, Rouhanifard’s father took a job at a gas station, and Rouhanifard grew up hearing about his parents’ struggles to rebuild their lives. As Rouhanifard told SJ Magazine, “Their ability to persevere through those challenges was because of education... I wanted to be that same force they were for me and my teachers were for me.” Rouhanifard graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and joined Teach for America, which trains and places recent undergraduates in underserved schools. After teaching 6th graders in New York City, he worked as an analyst for Goldman Sachs, later returning to education, holding leadership roles at the New York City Department of Education and Newark Public Schools. In 2013 Rouhanifard was named superintendent for the Camden City School District, one of the lowest-performing districts in New Jersey. He adopted a comprehensive, community-driven strategy, which included reducing suspension rates and investing in social and emotional learning supports for all students. He also increased the number of public charter schools while ensuring that their student bodies were representative of the neighborhoods they served, including serving students with disabilities, and he worked collaboratively with teachers and families throughout the process. By the end of his tenure in 2018, the district’s proficiency rates in English and math had nearly tripled, the dropout rate was halved, and the graduation rate had risen by 17 percent. In 2019 Rouhanifard co-founded the nonprofit Propel America, which equips high school students with the skills, credentials, and networks needed to land an upwardly mobile job within one year of graduation.