The civic engagement project was set up in my Intro to Professional Writing class in an effort to connect with both the community and the problems facing New Jersey as a whole. It could take any form, really, and involve anything, as long as it pertained to an issue the new governor, (now Christie), would be dealing with. With this in mind, as well as my future goals, one of the first things I considered was education, and more specifically, education in urban areas. How is the state government handling urban education? How much aid and resources are cities such as Newark, Trenton, and Camden receiving? What is being done to combat the stereotypes and provide equal learning opportunities for children of a lower social-economic status? I decided to look into urban education as a whole,in an effort to understand what problems are public urban city schools facing, and what is being advocated, and more importantly, what could be done in order to improve conditions?
Before really getting into the intricacies of this portrait of urban school districts within New Jersey, it was important to understand exactly what the state considered “urban” and what was then translated to reveal the level of direct involvement. The basing fact from the beginning was that urban and suburban school districts do not have the same resources to support their schools, the reasons why branching across race, class, and population. It is of note that while urban areas are primarily of a lower economic status, they are also primarily minorities. To reign the lens of this project in to some extent, I chose to examine Trenton area schools, as attending The College of New Jersey in Ewing places me in neighboring distance of a city that is a part of the “Abbott districts” (Hirsch). This name derives from a series of lawsuits known collectively as Abbott v. Burke, in which the “New Jersey Supreme Court directed the state to implement a series of interlocking remedies designed to provide children with a thorough and efficient education” (Hirsch). The cases were filed through the Education Law Center, and claimed that the state of New Jersey, in 1981, had “failed to meet its constitutional obligation to provide a ‘thorough and efficient education to students in poor, urban school districts’” (qtd. in “History”). The Court recognized this disparity, and by 1985 issued its first ruling, ordering that all urban children must have an education equal to that of students in the state’s wealthier districts, mandating in 1990 that the state’s funding be distributed equally as supplemental programs were implemented in to “mitigate disadvantages” (“History”).
Trenton is one of thirty-one designated “Abbott districts” in New Jersey, along with Newark, Union City, and Camden. In a report titled “Tracking Progress, Engaging Communities,” published by the Education Law Center in 2005, the study goes in depth with regard to the Abbott requirements and how Trenton schools are faring with specific regard to eight qualifiers. The goals of this work are:
1. To inform people in Trenton about the status of school improvement efforts and student outcomes;
2. To engage people in Trenton in exploring and discussing what is working and what still needs to be done;
3. To develop and put a plan into action that supports school improvement;
4. And to establish a system of accountability practices that local education stakeholders can use in years to come.
In effect, such a study is for an audience like us, people who care about public education and how it is being implemented for all students in New Jersey. Figure 1.1, included in the report, shows the gap between Trenton and the state average for several indicators. For example, fewer adults are in the labor force and unemployment is almost twice as high in Trenton as in the state as a whole. Household income is also a great deal lower: more than $20,000 less than the state median. More than one in five adults and more than one in four children under the age of 17 lived below the poverty level in 2000, and although many single mothers are successful economically, a large percentage of female-headed family households remain to be a strong indicator of community poverty (Hirsch). Figure 1.1 shows that 45 percent of Trenton’s families are led by single mothers compared to 18 percent statewide and almost two in five Trenton adults have not earned a high school diploma. As parents, high school dropouts may be less trusting of schools and have fewer of their own academic skills to support their children’s learning. Finally, exposure to violence can have negative effects on the mental health of youth, while it also increases their risk of being victims of violent crime. At 17.3 per thousand, the violent crime rate in Trenton is more than four times higher than on average within the state.
Such figures are important because the students who attend the public schools are a reflection of the people, the families, who live in Trenton. Their characteristics serve to inform the educational content introduced, what the staff needs to teach and what will support that teaching, as well as its importance to the space and facilities in which teaching and learning will occur, and the overall leadership that guides the whole educational process (Hirsch). This project will serve to analyze Trenton public schools, the programs suggested and their success, as well as the recent funding changes and how that has played a role. Part One discusses the goals the Education Law Center has set for Abbott districts and how Trenton fares in that regard, as well as takes a look into the programs themselves. Part Two focuses more on recent developments; how Trenton schools are performing compared to the ELC’s study, and looks into the funding changes made within the past years.
As support of education seems to be present in New Jersey, demonstrated by the amount of programs being implemented and the funding provided, one thing that does bring interest is how this new formula for the urban area schools’ financial support will work. While it is understandable that the state needs to provide for all of the schools, as Lynne Strickland, executive director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools has said, for, putting all under one funding formula can allow districts to advocate together on educational issues. What I hope can be achieved is a point where urban areas receive the same level of schooling as its “I” and “J” counterparts; while certainly overt optimism, it is not an issue that solely lies with funding.
Stuck in the Shallow End, a published study done in California that looked into minority students, where they were receiving an education, and those schools’ computer science program, talks about this idea of belief systems. The work asserts that “deficit belief systems interact with school structures,” as instructors will have assumptions on student limitations, and tailor the course toward this idea (Margoulis 39-40). This kind of negative thinking is what will prohibit true growth in the level of education provided, for “availability of quality opportunities [will] produce interested and capable students” while a “lack of opportunities leaves students with little interest, understanding, and preparation” (Margoulis 46).
After researching and gathering a better understanding of how the state has been handling education for areas in lower socio-economically developed areas, it is found to be an issue the state is still struggling with, but heading in the right direction. The new governor should monitor the programs and success, especially the effectiveness of the new funding system, and hopefully, as the term “Abbott District” begins to drop off, urban areas will not have a need to be separate, as an inequality in public education is curtailed.
Dela Cruz, Christopher N. “N.J. Supreme Court backs Gov. Jon Corzine’s revised school-funding plan.” 2009. NJ.com. 1 November 2009. <http://www.nj.com/news/index.ssf/2009/05/nj_supreme_court_rules_abbott.html>.
Guide for Implementing Urban Education Reform in Abbott Districts. New Jersey Department of Education Whole School Reform. Report: ED460226. 457 pp. Sep 2000. ERIC.
Hirsch, Lesley and Erain Applewhite-Coney. Tracking Progress, Engaging Communities: Abbott Indicators Technical Report–Trenton, New Jersey. Education Law Center; Report: ED504880. 188pp. 2005. ERIC.
Margoulis, Jane. Stuck in the Shallow End: Education, Race, and Computing. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008.
Santiago, Katherine. “Questions and Answers on School Funding.” 2009. NJ.com. 29 October 2009. <http://blog.nj.com/ledgerarchives/2009/05/questions_answers_on_school_fu.html>.
Santiago, Katherine. “The History of Abbot v. Burke.” 2009. NJ.com. 28 October 2009.<http://blog.nj.com/ledgerarchives/2009/05/the_history_of_abbott_v_burke.html>.