Thursday, January 22, 2015

Ideas For The New Trenton Mayor

Several weeks ago Mayor Eric Jackson and Superintendent Francisco (?)Duran made a joint appearance designed to highlight their shared objective of improving the performance of Trenton’ schools and its students, most of whom have spent years slogging through a system that has promised change but more often than not fell short of its goals. I applaud the apparent improvement in the District’s graduation rate, but my concern is that this improvement will give the District a false sense of confidence, that it is “on course” and doesn’t need to risks to better our future. These risks are necessary if our students are going to receive the kind of quality education they need to graduate as independent and empowered individuals with the awareness to navigate the financial, legal, social, and technological forces that will impact their lives.

Some of those risks must occur within the schools themselves through a major transformation in the curriculum, the personnel, the supervision of those personnel, and the incentives we offer to educators to improve their performance. But it is equally important that a new relationship be created between schools and stakeholders throughout the Trenton area, stakeholders that can make a valuable contribution to learning. And that is why seeing Mayor Jackson and Superintendent Duran together was such a refreshing sight, if indeed it signals the beginning of an effort to bring together our schools and those stakeholders. Whether they be in the business community, among our non-profits and universities, or in the very neighborhoods that are home to our schools, these stakeholders must be “brought on board.”
If this new partnership is to fully blossom, it is incumbent on our leaders to reach out to the community for ideas on how to best bring stakeholders into this relationship. With this in mind, I have a couple ideas that I believe will help our students and their families gain greater access to the resources and expertise that our stakeholders can provide.
In Trenton, economic development and education are inextricably linked, as many students will hopefully graduate and look to the region to live and work. One idea is designed to join these two interests by creating what I term “Urban Opportunity Zones.” Similar in design to now defunct Urban Enterprise Zones, the general idea is to offer tax and financial incentives to businesses, non-profits, trades, and professional associations that relocate or create an entity in these Zones in exchange to providing internships, employment, mentoring, after school programs, scholarships, or some other educational opportunity for Trenton students. Ideally we could rehabilitate one of the brownfields in the city to locate these Urban Opportunity Zones, hopefully with help from the State and Federal government to develop these properties. This program would be an ideal way to partner stakeholders with high school students and provide opportunities readily available to students in nearby suburban districts like West Windsor-Plainsboro or Princeton, where exposure to professional adults and their positive influences is common.

A second idea is modeled on a popular program in the developing world, commonly known as “micro credit.” This idea, started by Nobel Prize winner Mohammed Yunas and the Grameen Bank, is to provide small, non-collateralized loans to budding entrepreneurs to help them develop their underutilized skills.
What I have in mind is to create a “community bank” that will provide loans, grants, or actual capital resources to parents in Trenton that are highly motivated to help provide educational resources and opportunities to their children but do not have the financial ability to do so. I cannot say enough about how important this access to resources is to help bridge the gulf that exists between the educational opportunities of suburban families and families in the inner city. Whether it is in the form of technology, tutoring, summer or after school programs, or a myriad of other resources, finding a way to provide these resources to parents that are committed to providing opportunities to their children is a critical component of academic achievement.  Donations of money or capital can be aggressively sought, with incentives used to help motivate contributions. Creating a non-profit organization to oversee the process, one that will review “applications” and then provide or finance the appropriate resources, would not be particularly complicated and would again demonstrate the desire of our Mayor to truly participate in the educational futures of our children and to truly bring together stakeholders in the region with inner city students. Stakeholders directly benefit from the quality of urban education, for it is these inner city students that will one day help create and define the quality of life in the City as citizens and consumers.

These are but two ideas, but I am confident that there are others in the community equally interested in helping to shape the future of learning in our City. And like many others, I would like to help make that future bright. Let us hope that the sight of our Mayor and Superintendent was more than just a photo opportunity. They need to roll up their sleeves and get to work.

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