This page is an early version of the article published in the Trenton Times. It differs mainly in having illustrations which were not included in the published article, documenting the issues graphically.

Trenton’s Failing Schools: the Tragedy and the Hope

By Dr James Deneen and Dr Carmen Catanese

For most Americans, the promise of upward mobility-- of a life more prosperous than their parents’-- has been achieved through education. In Trenton today that promise is snatched away from youngsters by the poor quality of public schooling on stark display in the “Report Card” for Trenton Central High School published annually by the State Department of Education:

  • 60% of students drop out of TCHS between the ninth and twelfth grade
  • 55% of students test below the State standard for proficiency in reading
  • 78% of students test below the State standard for proficiency in mathematics
  • 36-48% of students graduate only after “special review assessments”

These numbers represent a tragedy of life-changing proportion for many students, and this has broad implications. The future for these children is determined by an educational environment in which their potential as citizens and as human beings is stunted. They and their families can see this unfolding, but it is virtually impossible for them to do anything about it without help from the larger community.

Beyond the personal tragedy, there are practical issues that affect us all. Taxpayers are victims because education in Trenton is almost totally supported by state tax dollars. And lavishly supported it is: the $16,000 per child at TCHS is far higher than the spending at some of the State’s best-performing public schools. Fourteen miles away at Montgomery High School-- where virtually all students achieve proficiency in reading and math-- the cost per child is about $12,000, paid almost entirely out of local property taxes.

The list of victims includes not just

today’s citizens but citizens of years to come, as the thousands of dropouts from urban schools load New Jersey with billions of dollars in “indirect” school costs long after they leave school. Dropouts account for 75% of the State’s prison population and engage the larger part of an expensive Criminal Justice System. They heavily populate Medicaid rolls and State Aid to Families. The combined direct and indirect education costs comprise a major part of New Jersey’s budget.

This has driven New Jersey’s tax rates to the top tier in the country. Middle class seniors are being pushed out of the State by sky-high property and income taxes. A punishing corporate tax environment discourages new industry that might provide jobs for these young people. We have a continuing spiral-- an under-educated, under-employed population driving up state costs and tax rates, in turn driving out the taxable base and driving tax rates still higher. It threatens to carry the State to financial ruin.

And what has the disproportionate spending on education bought for cities like Trenton? The answer is, unfortunately, continuing poverty, illiteracy, crime and desperation. This is why New Jersey’s urban schools are easily the most important and most urgent challenge facing incoming Governor Christie.


Many educators despair of teaching children from backgrounds of severe economic and cultural poverty. High school teachers especially are tempted to give up as they struggle with students who have not mastered fundamental language and mathematical skills, or acceptable classroom behavior.

But their conclusion is not inevitable. Our research shows that disadvantaged students can learn when a school’s curriculum is adapted to their needs, and when administrators and teachers enforce rules of behavior that allow learning to take place. This is not easy, particularly with students in their teens who lack basic learning skills and self-discipline; but we know that it can be accomplished because it’s being done today in New Jersey and across the nation. Communities with demographics like Trenton’s are turning around low-performing schools. Their students learn and graduate.

Two outstanding schools in New Jersey’s poorest urban areas are North Star Academy (NSA), and Robert Treat Academy (RTA), both in Newark. These charter schools draw on the same population as the deeply troubled Newark School System, but their students’ achievement differs greatly from that in the city system.

At North Star Academy, as in most Newark schools, 90 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch, a common measure of student poverty. Over the last four years, more than 95 percent of NSA students graduated, and over 90 percent went on to college. By the end of grade eight, after four years at NSA, 100 percent of students were proficient in language arts.

Robert Treat Academy serves the same disadvantaged population. Median income for the school’s zip code is $28,260, compared with a state median of $55,510. Yet, in the 2008 state assessment, 96.8% of RTA students had passing scores in language, math, and science, the highest for New Jersey’s urban schools.

Promising signs of change exist in both the Newark and Camden school systems. In January 2009, Newark Mayor Cory Booker and School Superintendent Clifford B. Janey announced a plan to open nine alternative schools run by a partnership that includes the school district, Essex County Community College, and several supporting organizations and foundations.

In Camden, an alternative school called MetEast was opened in 2005 by a school reform organization called Big Picture, which operates schools in low achieving, high dropout areas, offering a curriculum focused on student projects rather than textbook instruction. MetEast features two days a week of student internships in the community, and unlike charter schools, it is directly governed by the school district. At their first graduation in 2009, all 30 students who entered as freshmen received their diploma. Camden has also opened two magnet schools that are showing encouraging results in student learning and persistence to graduation.

These schools and many others around the country have developed programs that raise student achievement and graduation rates despite disadvantages at least as great as those in Trenton. In our next article we will describe how they realized these results, and the steps we can take to replicate their achievement.

Subpages (1): Dropouts