Tuesday, May 22, 2012

A Tale of Two Trenton High Schools

The recent revelations concerning the dropout/graduation rates at Trenton’s two high schools were disheartening and foreboding of a difficult future for the City of Trenton. It is simply inconceivable that the city, and by extension the State, can support a population of young people with no meaningful education to prepare them for a life of relative independence. There can be no doubt that without some form of training or return to school another generation of dependent citizens will now be residing in Trenton and the surrounding communities. With no industry to speak of, access to the kind of jobs that will generate income high enough to maintain a home, let alone a family, will be next to impossible to find. It is generally accepted as fact that a high school diploma alone is no longer sufficient to open doors to job pathways of any consequence. Compounding this problem is the fact that New Jersey’s graduation test, the HSPA, yields practically no empirical data which would indicate what actual knowledge and skills our teenagers have truly learned in high school. Do today’s graduates have the content knowledge and practical skills to exist in today’s workforce or run a financially sound household; the answer is anyone’s guess!!

So we can all agree that a high school education is far from sufficient for anyone interested in upward mobility in today’s economy. In Trenton, only half of all students even graduate. The challenges being faced by the District are enormous. What is even more disturbing about the graduation rate in Trenton is the huge disparity between the city’s two high schools. Trenton Central’s graduation rate is far below 50%, but Trenton West can “boast” a graduation rate of 75%!!! It is incumbent on city and school officials to dig into these numbers and discern why such a disparity exists. This is a potential minefield, because discussion of the likely “culprits” for this disparity will raise the ire of a great number of people. At first glance, it seems logical to assign responsibility for these numbers to three groups of stakeholders, the teachers, the administrators, and the parents.
There will definitely be those who will point to the quality of the faculty in the two schools and question whether a fair distribution of exemplary teachers has been achieved; a prima facie case can be made that the teachers at Trenton Central lack the relative competency demonstrated by the faculty at Trenton West, but just try to conduct a comparative study of union members at the two schools. That ain’t happening!
Blame can also be assigned to the administrators at the two schools and their ability to inspire and motivate both the faculty and the student body to pursue excellence in what they do. I’m sure that there is plenty of talk of high achievement at Trenton Central, but the outcomes don’t match the rhetoric. I’m sure the administrators are honest, principled, goal oriented leaders, but it is clear that the culture of learning at Trenton Central is clearly dysfunctional.
And finally we need to look at the families of those attending each high school. I am admittedly basing my opinion on observations of the communities that “feed” each school, along with anecdotal information gleaned from extemporaneous conversations with “locals,” but here goes: the families that make up the West community are more middle class, there are more professional parents, more traditional family structures, more home ownership, and older parents. Do these variables correlate with greater academic success for children in these families? I don’t have the figures in front of me, but I’m going to make a leap of faith and say, emphatically, YES!
Awareness of this reality won’t in and of itself do anything to close the gap between the two schools, and it bears repeating that the status quo at both schools is unacceptable. Maybe some form of busing is needed to create a more balanced demographic at each school. I have been arguing for years that the city needs to create some type of incentive to entice middle class families to relocate into the city and have their kids attend public schools. These communities need role models, they need home ownership, and they need racial and socioeconomic diversity.
Reforming these local communities will help provide a long term solution. So will enforcing the law requiring that homes and rental properties be free of lead paint. But the urgency to correct the dropout rate demands immediate action to fix the culture of learning at these schools. That will be the subject of my next post. I’d love to know how you feel about the disparity between the two high schools: what are the causes, and what would you do to correct it?

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