Inspired to Lead

Rutgers University–Camden played a key role in the life and career of Camden City School District superintendent Katrina McCombs

By Sam Starnes

The nurturing Katrina McCombs received from her family and teachers in Camden public schools remains a critical influence in her role as superintendent of the Camden City School District. “It taught me the value of making sure that we do whatever possible to surround our children and young people with experiences that are going to catapult them into their destiny,” said McCombs, who has served in the school district’s top role since 2018.

Through a partnership with Rutgers University–Camden and Camden High School, McCombs spent much time studying in the university’s Paul Robeson Library when she was in high school. After graduation, she attended Lehigh University with plans to go onto a premed track and ultimately become a doctor, but during her undergraduate years she realized she wanted to teach. After earning a degree in behavioral and neurosciences in 1991, she returned to Camden to teach kindergarten. “I found it very, very gratifying to give back to the young people of the future generation,” McCombs said.

After teaching kindergarten for three years, McCombs realized she wanted to be more prepared to deal with the emotional and social needs of children, so she enrolled at Columbia University in New York and earned two master’s degrees in psychological counseling. She returned to Camden to work as a child therapist for a private agency, but after a year returned to teaching in the city’s schools in 1997 as a literacy teacher in the middle school where she also held group therapy sessions to support students. She moved on into roles of increasing responsibility that included serving as a principal, director of early childhood development, and deputy superintendent. In 2003, she earned a master’s in public administration through a university partnership with the school district. “The experience at Rutgers–Camden was really critical in shifting me to be on a path to serve in the role of superintendent,” she said.

Rutgers–Camden, she said, continues to benefit Camden students through numerous programs, including Rutgers Future Scholars, Camden Ignite, and the Hill Family Center for College Access. “There has always been a rich heritage of partnership between the educational community in Camden and Rutgers,” she said, adding that she hopes the school district and the university collaborations continue to grow. McCombs said she relishes the challenges of leading the Camden City School District, which is striving to become independent from state control. One difficult step was closing schools, including some she attended, to make the school system more fiscally sound. “The biggest challenge for me was saying to the community that I love that we are going to have to close these schools, but that it is going to set us up for sustainability in the future.”

Katrina McCombs GSC’03 oversaw the opening of the new Camden High School campus in September 2021.

An accomplishment of McCombs’ administration is the opening this fall of the new Camden High School, which replaced the previous building that had stood for more than one hundred years. “Having students in this new state-of-the-art building is absolutely amazing,” McCombs said. “It has been a long journey, a difficult journey, but if we keep students first and at the center of decision-making, we see that this new school is best for them.”

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