Thursday, April 1, 2010

School Failures

The last couple weeks were busy ones for the Trenton School District, and that prompted a lot of discussion among my friends. In case you've been out of the loop, or live outside the region, here are some highlights:

  • 218 of 357 Trenton Central High School seniors may not graduate because they've failed a proficiency exam, and, somehow, only just found out about it. They'll need to pass one of two proficiency tests, and the results won't be ready until a few weeks before graduation, leaving these kids without a certain future for a few more agonizing weeks.*
  • A Latino teacher at the Daylight Twilight Alternative High School filed suit against the district, alleging he applied — and was repeatedly passed over — for 20+ upper-level positions over the last 5 years, because of his ethnicity.
  • In the wake of Governor Chris Christie's budget cuts, the district is planning to cut 215 jobs.
  • In the wake of Governor Chris Christie's budget cuts, the district is planning to close three city schools (Stokes, Harrison, and Rivera).
  • 12 of the 18 security guards at Trenton Central High called in sick Friday, March 26, to attend an early morning school board meeting to protest the possible outsourcing of their jobs, leaving the high school scrambling to keep the hallways and borders safe.
  •  Blogger and substitute teacher Skip Harrison was attacked in the school in which he was working, earlier this week.

It's been busy, indeed. The news, along with the discussions that ensued, are helping me form stronger opinions about the education of our child. There's a consensus among my friends that since we (as in "the people," but not "we, the residents of Trenton") pay taxes for public schools, we should be able to use them with confidence, the way we use the roads, or count on food inspectors to do their jobs.** My friends and I are products of the public schools, and we're okay. I have nothing against private schools; I'm generalizing a tad, but there's a sense of entitlement in private institutions, along with the icky consumer excesses that are usually less prevalent in the public sector. The more level playing field in a public school, allows young people to focus on their studies, and a little less on their clothing and so forth. At least in theory. Yes, I know we're talking about teenagers.

The school system is broken in Trenton; there's no putting a positive spin on what's happening here. Sure, some kids do well, and get out alive, but they're the ones with parents who are doing their jobs, by being positive role models and nurturing important life skills. They teach their children very basic, but important concepts like listening and focusing; and maybe those kids were born with some common sense of their own, too. I hope Matthew was born with a good, curious brain and heart; I plan to do my job as a parent so that he's not adding to the problems here in Trenton. However, when we send our kids off to school, we don't decide whom they sit next to, or whom they'll hang out with in gym or in lunch. There's a very good chance, in a Trenton school, that the parent/s of the child that my child befriends will not have the same hopes and dreams for the next generation that I have. And with so many kids who have parents who don't care much, it's no wonder that the teachers aren't able to do their jobs. One criticism of the public schools is that classes are designed to be easy, so that more kids can succeed. But if the classes in Trenton are dumbed down to the point that it's not even about academics, but rather, ensuring that fewer people are getting hit in the face with books, how can anyone learn anything? There's a very good chance my child won't get educated in a Trenton classroom, AND, even worse, he could become a knucklehead because of the people he's around.

My child is too important to me to risk his future in the schools here. I'm not giving up hope; maybe things can turn around, but we're saving up for tuition just to be safe.


* This blows me away. Skip Harrison, the gentleman in my last bulleted item above, wrote an insightful piece on 3/25, that may, sort of, interpret what's really happening with the students who failed the proficiency test.

That so many kids could fail the test the first time around is proof to me that the schools here in Trenton are not working; since the failure rate elsewhere is not nearly as high as it is in Trenton. Check out the comment section in the Trentonian, after they reported the story of the mass test failure, for further evidence that the schools here are a wreck (a warning: the comment section is scary in and of itself). I can understand the "keeping it real" philosophy to a small extent, but that does not include writing horrifically (poor grammar, slang, all caps); no one will bother to decipher that mess. That's the problem with "keeping it real": the bulk of the population responds by saying, "okay, you do that, honey. I'm going to enjoy my life. Buh-bye." I scanned those difficult-to-read comments and I think the basic sense is that people who complains about the students and/or don't have children in the schools, and/or newcomers are haters, and don't have the right to criticize. There are some haters, to be sure, but everyone has the right to an opinion, including people who cannot express themselves well; besides, the nearly 20 years of silence about the problems in the Trenton schools has done no good. If it takes some childless newcomers to provide the catalyst for change, then yippee. That needs to happen. But these kids, through a series of tragic failures (of their parents, mostly) that brought them to this point, have no attention span, no understanding of consequences, and they demand instant gratification that studying and sitting peacefully cannot provide. It can be hard to pay attention in class; playing video games, riding ATVs, doing/selling drugs, and even just hanging out with friends can be more fun than studying. But come on: when you're young, you have so much energy, and an incredible ability to get so much done in a day. There's no reason that I can think of that kids here can't play AND study.

I wanted to see what the kids were up against, so I looked online at many available study guides for the test in question, the HSPA, or the High School Proficiency Assessment. Because of my personal strengths (language arts) and weaknesses (math), I had mixed feelings. Namely, the language arts section was reasonably easy, even for someone like me who hasn't been in a classroom for a very long time; and the math section was difficult, most likely because I haven't been in a classroom (especially a math classroom) for a very long time. But it didn't look any harder than any test I faced as a kid; and when you're immersed in the concepts presented in the test, it should not be THAT hard; never so hard that almost your entire eligible-for-graduation class fails.

Over the years, it's been said that standardized tests cater to non-urban kids. I can see how the differences in the lives of an urban kid versus a suburban kid in the very young grades factor in, but as kids get older, don't things level out a little bit? I'm asking that because I really don't know. Regardless, I think at some point, an older child HAS to be aware enough to take SOME responsibility for his or her own success in school, regardless of how bad things are at home. School can be a refuge and a gateway to freedom from poverty. Why do so many urban kids choose chaos? How do we break this cycle?

** I am seriously baffled as to why the suburbs, who ARE paying for the schools in Trenton, aren't complaining. Hello, Lawrence, Hopewell, Hamilton, The Windsors, Robbinsville, and The Princetons! You're taxed up the wazoo, and 218 of 357 Trenton High School kids may not graduate! Hundreds of others dropped out before they even took the test! You may as well throw your money out of a moving car on the highway! There's a very good chance it will wind up in hands of people who will spend it better than it's been spent in Trenton.

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