Times Op Ed 3

(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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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 high schools.

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 final.

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 progress updates.

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 Jersey Constitution.

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: letters@njtimes.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.