So Trenton is finally going to get a new high school for the community, and now the question is being raised whether having a new school with produce the desired result of improved learning. There is no denying that, at least in the beginning, there will be a refreshing sense of renewal, that the students in the school will have “a fresh start.” But will that translate into a new culture of learning, a requisite for quality in education.
I can’t help but think of Atlantic City High- I see the school every time I visit Ventnor- and all the promise that went with it when it was initially built over a decade ago. Unfortunately, that new building never did translate into improved test scores or graduation rates. Casual observers will point out that even though A.C. had a new school, everything else about Atlantic City remained status quo. From that experience it is clear that a new school in and of itself will do nothing, and that with the new school must come new relationships, new programs, new strategies, new curricula, and greater engagement in the school from parents and stakeholders in the business and non-profit communities.
I am convinced that the new school would be a perfect opportunity for Trenton to appeal to the State to become a “demonstration school,” a school where innovation and risk taking in the school’s overall curriculum and policies regarding teacher hiring, instruction, evaluation, and salary. It would be the perfect moment to turn the school into a place where instruction is made practical, geared towards preparing students not so much for college but for life after high school, a place where they can acquire marketable skills they can take into the workplace. If, as I envision it, the school forms those important relationships with outside stakeholders, then the groundwork would have been laid for that transition from school to the workplace.
As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, I would like Trenton High to in essence become a charter school, providing them the legal flexibility to make substantive changes to the way business is conducted in the building.
Let’s face it, whatever has been tried by the school in collaboration with the State and its mandates has not worked. There is no longitudinal study I am aware of that shows any significant improvement in learning at Trenton or most other inner city schools. By becoming a “demonstration” school, Trenton High will be free to try things that they might otherwise be reluctant to do for fear of failure. But as any entrepreneur will tell you, failure is merely a stop on the road to success; it is a learning experience as long as you have the ability to make the changes that failure teaches you to make.
When I studied economic development in the Third World, research showed that a great number of rural peasants were risk averse; they were unwilling to try the new seeds and technologies that the U.N. and others tried introducing because the risk of failure was too high. What the U.N. learned to do was essentially create a farm of their own and use that farm to “demonstrate” the gains that were possible. Once the peasants witnessed these gains they were far more receptive to adopt those changes.
I believe this strategy needs to be tried in the inner city. I realize that was, in theory, to be the promise offered by charter schools, but in the decades since the initial legislation we have steered far from that original intent. Charter schools are seen as competitors, not collaborators, and, anyway, given the scale of these schools relative to the huge public high schools, it is far from certain that any positive features in these schools would easily translate to the public school.
By making Trenton a “demonstration school” and untethering it from the State, we have a real opportunity to transform learning in the inner city. It is my hope that someone in authority shares this vision, and will do the right thing with this moment.