As a youngster growing up in Camden, Katrina McCombs decided at an early age she would not follow the same career path as her parents, both educators.
But she did — first in the classroom as a kindergarten teacher, and now as the interim superintendent overseeing South Jersey's largest district, which has struggled to boost student performance.
"I never even in a million years thought I would be sitting in the seat as an acting superintendent," McCombs said recently. "It was never an aspiration. I was going to be a doctor."
McCombs, 48, believes she is prepared for the biggest challenge of her career, figuring out the next steps for Camden, a struggling state-run district that has become a model for the changing landscape of urban public education.
"We've made some great gains, but we have a long way to go," she said.
New Jersey Education Commissioner Lamont O. Repollet appointed McCombs in June to lead the Camden school system as acting schools chief. She wants the job permanently and is believed to be the early favorite for the position when the state Department of Education launches a national search for the post.
She replaces Paymon Rouhanifard, who was brought in by Gov. Chris Christie to transform the failing district in 2013, a few months after a state takeover. He stepped down in June and threw his support behind McCombs, who served in his administration as a deputy superintendent for four years.
"Someone local should step up and carry the district forward," Rouhanifard said in April when he announced his resignation.
Rouhanifard left behind a district different from the school system he inherited. During his tenure, five of the city's most struggling schools were turned into "Renaissance" schools. More Camden public school students are enrolled in charter and Renaissance schools than traditional public schools. The iconic Camden High has been demolished and the district headquarters moved from the waterfront to a vacant neighborhood school.
He is credited with improving the graduation rate from 49 percent to 70 percent and cutting the dropout rate from 21 percent to 12 percent in five years. Ten of the city's schools once rated among the worst public schools in the state have been removed from that list.
Critics, however, said Rouhanifard focused too much on creating schools while students in traditional public schools continue to lag. Some longtime residents never fully warmed up to Rouhanifard — only the fourth outsider to serve as schools chief.
McCombs, who has spent her entire career of nearly 25 years in Camden, has won praise from Mayor Frank Moran as well as advocates and civil rights leaders who battled fiercely with Rouhanifard over issues such as class size, enrollment, and substitute teachers. She has held a series of community meetings to hear from parents and residents, and they have given her an earful.
"For her, this is not just an accession. She just really worked her way up and dedicated her life to education," said Keith E. Benson, president of the Camden Education Association. "She knows the dynamics of public education from all dimensions."
Born and raised in the city's Whitman Park section, McCombs graduated from Camden High in 1987, where she was a popular student and cheerleader. She sang in the choir at Antioch Baptist Church. Her father, Gary Shaw, a longtime science teacher at Woodrow Wilson High, and her mother, Eunice Young, a paraprofessional and later an elementary school teacher, encouraged her to pursue a career in education.
"I was not going to teach," she recalled with a smile.
The oldest of three daughters, McCombs had a different plan. She graduated from Lehigh University and earned a bachelor's in behavioral science and neurosciences. She later obtained a master's from Columbia University in psychological counseling and a master of public administration at Rutgers University.
While an undergraduate, McCombs fell in love with teaching and returned to Camden as a kindergarten teacher at Mickle School, the neighborhood school her mother attended as a youngster. She later became a child therapist and a middle school English teacher before climbing to administrative positions as a vice principal and principal.
Since taking the helm, McCombs has spent the summer on a listening tour, crisscrossing the city of about 70,000 residents. She said she wants input from the stakeholders: parents, students, teachers and residents to help shape her vision for the district.
"She took on all comers and was able to respond. That's not an easy thing to do in Camden," said longtime resident and former Camden NAACP president Kelly Francis, who attended a recent meeting with McCombs in the Parkside section. "I was very impressed."
Among the concerns that McCombs has heard from the community that she plans to address is a request for more minority teachers, especially black males. Like public schools nationwide, Camden has a shortage of black male teachers in the classroom, roughly 9 percent of its 700 are teachers. Black and Hispanic students represent 98 percent of the student population.
A big question also remains about when the state will relinquish its control over the school system. State education officials have not indicated how much longer Camden will remain under state supervision. Three other takeover districts — Newark, Paterson, and Jersey City — are moving toward a return to local control.
"You could bring in Mickey Mouse, but the state is still calling the shots," Francis said.
McCombs acknowledges a tough road ahead to improve student achievement in a district plagued for years by poor test scores, a low graduation rate, and a high dropout rate. There are no immediate plans to close more traditional public schools, she said.
For the 2018-19 school year, the district expects to enroll 6,800 students in the city's 18 traditional public schools; 4,350 in 11 charter schools, and 3,850 in 11 Renaissance schools, which are publicly funded and privately operated.
Married and the mother of two teenage daughters, McCombs says that her new job is "humbling" and that she wants the best for all of Camden's children, regardless of the type of school they attend. Her mother, 67, who still lives in the city, along with an extended family, is her biggest champion.
"I think she can persevere. It's not going to be an easy task," said Young. "I always keep her in prayer."