(Third and last article in a series on educational reform. Published Jan 31, 2010 in the Trenton Times.)
Trenton's failing schools: how they can be fixed
By Jim Deneen and Carmen Catanese
The first opinion article in the series
("Trenton's failing schools -- the tragedy and the
hope," Nov. 2, 2009) describes the record of
Trenton's public schools, focusing on the high dropout
rate and low achievement at Trenton Central High School
(TCHS). The second article ("What will work in
education," Dec. 31, 2009) addresses the changes in
curriculum and organization that enable communities like
Trenton to greatly improve their students' academic
achievement and persistence.
In this article, we recommend ways that Trenton Central High
School can improve student achievement and reduce dropouts.
Certain convictions and expectations should precede any plan
for reform at TCHS:
- Local and state education officials must
acknowledge that the current student achievement and
graduation rates represent a terrible waste of young
people's lives and taxpayer resources.
- It's simply wrong to say that Trenton students
can't learn, or that its schools cannot improve.
Abundant evidence demonstrates that schools like TCHS with
large numbers of severely disadvantaged students are
successfully teaching those students.
- Protecting students from violence and harassment is
a prerequisite for school learning. The same provision holds
for a level of order, attention and civility that permits
classroom teaching and learning.
- Trenton High School students' low achievement
begins in the district's middle and elementary schools.
The failure of so many lower-school students to master basic
language knowledge and skills shows the need for systemwide
reform in Trenton.
Today's high school students cannot wait. We urge the
following three steps:
1) Partially restructure TCHS by opening two alternative
Trenton now has an alternative high school, the Daylight
Twilight High School. Unfortunately, this school's
record on the New Jersey High School Proficiency Assessment
resembles that of TCHS.
The first new alternative school should focus on students
who are most at risk of dropping out. The record of Big
Picture schools (see description in article two of this
series) in retaining and graduating at-risk students
recommends such a program for TCHS.
Newark has opened five alternative high schools this year,
several operated by outside contractors. All have programs
designed for students who are at risk or have already
dropped out of school.
This kind of alternative school should begin as soon as
possible in Trenton.
The second alternative school should have a subject-oriented
program like those in such successful schools as North Star
Academy and Robert Treat Academy, both in Newark.
At least two years' start-up time will be required to
prepare students, parents and teachers for such an
intensive, academically oriented curriculum.
2) Institute curriculum interventions to serve students who
are not in the alternative programs.
We strongly recommend two periods daily of reading and
writing instruction for all TCHS students. Those who are
seriously deficient in language or basic math skills should
receive intensive tutoring for at least two hours every day.
That program must be planned by specialists, who will train
and supervise the tutors.
Any plans for restructuring or new curricula should describe
the physical facilities such innovations require. We urge
school officials to decide on organizational or curricular
changes before plans for a new high school building are made
3) Designate an educational leader from outside the Trenton
School District to work closely with TCHS's
administrators and teachers.
This expert must have a record of success in working with
educationally disadvantaged youngsters. In cooperation with
TCHS's principal and staff, he/she should have the
authority to produce and implement a plan that includes a
schedule to achieve specific objectives for students. For
example: "Within two years of the plan's
implementation, dropout rates will be reduced by
one-third." A final report must be preceded by periodic
With these changes, Trenton's school officials can
begin to ensure that their students receive the thorough and
efficient system of education guaranteed them by the New
Dr. James Deneen was a teacher and school administrator
before joining Educational Testing Service as a program
director. Dr. Carmen Catanese was most recently executive
vice president of the Sarnoff Corporation.
This is the last of three articles on the problems and
possible reforms of Trenton Central High School. We
encourage readers to address their reactions to The Times
via its letters to the editor section: email@example.com.
More information on school reform can be found on the
website cssnj.org, where all three articles in this series
are reproduced, along with other essays and links to resources.