Last Friday I attended the groundbreaking ceremony for Trenton Central High School, an urban high school located in Trenton, NJ. I worked in the previous building for about 20 years, and can honestly say that the old structure needed to be replaced as it was overrun by rats, saturated with black mold, and loaded with asbestos. In 2014, a structural site assessment revealed that the building had a plethora of structural issues, and eventually it was determined that instead of repairing the old edifice, it would be better to erect a whole new building.
The groundbreaking ceremony for the new school was a joyous event and there were lots of smiles, hugs, handshakes and even few tears. However, when I returned home I logged onto my computer and came across the comments section in this article and learned that not everyone was happy. In clearly radicalized language, critics complained that the new building would do nothing to help increase the graduation rate. Others opined that the new structure could be used as a holding cell until the kids ended up in prison. At first I thought to dismiss the comments, but then I thought oh no wait a minute, this needs to be addressed.
There is plenty of evidence, which clearly indicates that the physical condition of a school matters. For example, we know that students who attend temperature controlled schools with adequate lighting and suitable classrooms tend to receive higher marks. We also know that the school environment can have an impact on the amount of bullying, school violence and absenteeism.
Some people assert that $155 million is too much to pay for a school and the building could be constructed for far less. However, I would argue that society will pay if we don’t invest in our children now. The data is clear: individuals who attend a poor run down high school are more likely to receive lower grades, less likely to have health insurance when they become adults, suffer from more health problems, make less money over the course of their lifetime and die early. Additionally, children who attend high poverty schools are more likely dropout, be unemployed and eventually “tax the system” (i.e. be on public assistance) later in life. In other words, in terms of investing in our children society can either “pay up now or pay up later”. In the case of Trenton students, a new school is just one piece of the puzzle, and if previous research is correct the building alone could help lead to an uptick in student performance.
It is important to point out that in the past Trenton politicians and others have “found” money to fund other expensive projects in the city. To bring up ancient history, in 1994 officials found $16.2 million to construct a minor league stadium called Waterfront Park (now called Arm & Hammer Park). Supporters maintained that the new ballpark would bring excitement and jobs to the city. Ironically, when the stadium was built, Trenton Central High School was badly in need of care and maintenance as peeling paint, water damage, falling soggy ceiling tiles and mold were commonplace. Still, the ballpark was essentially constructed overnight and to this day it largely caters to the affluent tastes of white suburbanites who do not live in the city.
During the groundbreaking ceremony Gov. Chris Christie mentioned that has administration recently approved the $300 million renovation project for the Statehouse. Thus, while critics are upset that a long overdue $155 million high school is being constructed for primarily black and brown students, it is apparently appropriate and acceptable to spend almost double that amount to restore a dilapidated dome, which will continue to cast a shadow over some of Trenton’s most beleaguered neighborhoods and students.
It is important to point out that the construction of a new high school cannot erase decades of academic injustices. To quote Malcolm X, “”If you stick a knife nine inches into my back and pull it out three inches, that is not progress. Even if you pull it all the way out, that is not progress. Progress is healing the wound, and America hasn’t even begun to pull out the knife.” Malcolm’s comments speak to how a single act cannot erase what has happened in the past. A new school is a step in the right direction, but it would be a mistake to forget how so many students and staff members were affected by the deplorable conditions in the previous Trenton Central High School.