Times Op Ed 1

The article below was published in the Trenton Times Op Ed pages Nov 29, 2009.

Click here to go to a version of the article which includes illustrations.

Click here for further discussion of enrollment declines at TCHS.

Trenton's failing schools: the tragedy and the hope

Sunday, November 29, 2009

and Carmen Catanese

For most Americans, the promise of upward mobility has been achieved by the "thorough and efficient system of education" guaranteed to every child through the New Jersey Constitution. In Trenton today, that promise is snatched away from youngsters by the poor quality of public schooling. That quality is on stark display in the Report Card for the Trenton Central High School (TCHS) published annually by the state Department of Education. It shows that:

-- 60 percent of students drop out of TCHS between the ninth and 12th grades;

-- 55 percent of the remaining students test below the state standard for proficiency in reading;

-- 78 percent of those remaining students test below the state standard for proficiency in mathematics; and

-- only 36 percent of seniors pass the High School Proficiency Assessment for graduation.

This is a tragedy of life-changing proportions for many of the students. Their futures are powerfully influenced by an educational system that fails their hopes for becoming productive citizens. Beyond the young people themselves, such failing schools victimize all New Jersey taxpayers. Trenton's public schools are almost totally supported by state tax dollars. And that support is lavish: At $16,000 per student, educational spending in Trenton schools far exceeds the level of funding in some of the state's best-performing schools.

The list of victims goes beyond today's citizens. It includes New Jerseyans for years to come, as tens of thousands of drop-outs from urban schools load New Jersey with billions of dollars in "indirect" school costs. High-school drop-outs account for 75 percent of the state's prison population and a large share of a costly criminal justice system. They account for major Medicaid costs as well as state aid to families. The combined direct and indirect cost of schools that fail their students underlies a large part of New Jersey's grave budget problems.

What has this huge spending bought for Trenton High School students? The terrible answer for far too many is a life of illiteracy, continuing poverty, crime and despair.

The cost of failing schools, in turn, drives New Jersey's tax rates. According to the Tax Foundation, the state's combined sales, corporate, personal income and property taxes make New Jerseyans the most heavily taxed citizens in the nation. This punitive tax environment drives out taxpaying senior citizens and discourages companies from relocating in New Jersey and creating jobs for young people.

How has this failure of Trenton's schools been allowed to continue for years? Many citizens are unaware of the depth of the problem. Others adopt the attitude that "you can't educate children who come from such disadvantaged homes." High school teachers especially are tempted to give up as they struggle with students who lack basic reading and math skills, and often, self-discipline.

That conclusion is both wrong and destructive. Our research shows that students who are educationally disadvantaged 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 an easy process, but we know that it can be accomplished, because it's being done today in New Jersey and across the nation.

Two of several 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 impoverished population as the deeply troubled Newark School System, but their students' achievements are far better.

After four years at North Star, 100 percent of eighth-grade students are proficient in language arts. More than 95 percent of NSA regular education students graduate, and more than 90 percent go on to college.

Robert Treat Academy serves the same disadvantaged population. In the 2008 state assessment, RTA's cumulative passing rate in language arts, mathematics and science was 96.8 percent, the highest for New Jersey's urban schools.

Other schools across the country are showing comparable results. The Brownsville, Texas, school system; Carolina High School and Academy in Greenville, S.C.; and Garfield Elementary School in Long Beach, Calif., are all providing a good education to students who are as economically and culturally disadvantaged as those in Trenton. We will describe how these and other schools achieved these results and the steps Trenton could take to replicate them in our next opinion article in The Times.

Dr. James Deneen was a teacher and school administrator before joining Educational Testing Service as a program director. Dr. Carmen Catanese was most recently an executive vice-president of the Sarnoff Corporation.