How I Conducted My Research on Trenton Central High School

you fix trenton high

The battle over the fate of TCHS waged on for over ten years before the School Development Authority agreed to construct a new high school.

Earlier this month, I shared some information from my study on Trenton Central High School in Trenton, NJ. In this blog entry I will discuss the challenges and obstacles I faced as I conducted my research.

In the fall of 2015, I registered for a class called Origins of Urban Education.  Admittedly, I was not enthusiastic about taking the class; one might say I was suffering from PhD student version of senioritis. After taking classes at night for several years I found myself just wanting to be done with it all.  The class, however, was taught but a gregarious, keen professor and right away she piqued my interest.  I knew from the onset that I was going to learn a great deal from her.

All students were required to submit a major historical paper at the end of the semester.  Students could pick their own topic, research questions and methodology and delve into a subject that was interesting to them. Seeking to get a jump on things I decided in September that I would explore how the racial composition at Trenton Central High School changed over time.  I have worked at the school since 1995 so my topic was important to me.  I wanted to know what happened.  How and why did the racial balance at the school change over time?  How does a school go from being all white to all black?

From the onset I felt like I was at a distinct disadvantage. A lot of my peers were conducting research on the Philadelphia School system or charter schools so the information they needed seemed to be right at their fingertips.  Temple has a plethora of information about education reform and social movements in the city.  By contrast, finding information on the Trenton High was much more difficult in part because I really didn’t know where look.  When I contacted my professor she told me that I might be able to find the information I needed on microfiche. My response was microfiche are you kidding me? Do they still have that?  Once I began to scroll through the fiche I realized that she was right.  I started by examining old issues of the Trenton Sunday Times Advisor (now called the Trenton Times) and the Trentonian.  There I found a wealth of data about the schools history.  Obviously, you can’t always believe everything you read in the newspapers, but the articles helped me get a better understanding of the racial conflicts that took place at the school.

In time I learned how to navigate the Census Bureau web site and the information I found there seemed to line up with the the data I found in the newspapers.  Clearly a massive outmigration of whites took place in the 60s, 70s and 80s. By the time the 90s rolled around the racial transformation at Trenton High was complete.

There were people who helped me along the way as I conducted my research. A turning point in my investigation came when I met Ms. Laura Poll at the Trenton Public Library. Ms. Poll, who works in the Trentoniana section of the library, gave me some old newspaper clippings. The clippings chronicled the changes at Trenton High. In the past I would have used a copy machine to make copies of the articles, however, I used my cell phone to take pictures of the documents.  Ms. Poll also directed me to the old TCHS yearbooks. The photographic evidence in the yearbooks clearly showed how the racial balance of the school changed over time.

The librarian at Trenton High, Ms. Nancy Lee, encouraged and supported me as I conducted my study.  She told me about how a number of businesses relocated after the 1968 riots. The departure of these businesses devastated the local economy in part because the jobs they provided and the taxes they paid helped keep the city afloat. Seeking to escape the social and racial problems in Trenton, some employers moved to the outskirts of the city. Doing so made it difficult for some people to make it to work. Social scientists refer to this phenomenon as spatial mismatch – the idea that while some jobs are available, many poor inner-city residents cannot get to them because they are in remote locations.

A chance encounter with an old friend and Trenton Central High School graduate, Kevin Davis, proved instructive. Kevin explained how all students in the Mercer County area initially attended Trenton Central High School.  However, over time a number of school districts in the area built their own high schools. The construction of these high schools affected the racial coompostion at Trenton High as students who lived in Ewing, Lawrence, Hamilton and Hightstown NJ began to attend high schools in their respective neighborhoods.

Eventually, I had all this information about Trenton High, but I really didn’t know how to write it up. In my previous research classes I asked questions like “what is going on here?” Yet this was history class so my question was much more like “what happened here?” Everything about the assignment was different than my previous work. Even the formatting of the paper was different. I was used to writing papers using the American Psychological Association style, but for this paper I had to use Chicago Style.

In a previous blog entry, I described how I had to learn a new style of writing.  My literary struggles continued with this assignment.  In an attempt to get handle on things I began to review the work of various educational historians. I was most impressed with Professor Kathryn Kish Sklar prose and I ended up “borrowing” some of the language she used in her journal article The Schooling of Girls and Community Values in Massachusetts Towns, 1750-1820. Her text served as a type of template for both my writing and my research.

Some of my preliminary research was posted on the Trenton Public Library’s Facebook page and I couldn’t believe how many people read my work.  Apparently, people are really interested in the school’s history. I will continue my research on Trenton High and I hope that one day I will be able publish my findings in a scholarly journal.


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