Category Archives: Trenton

Vocational Education – A Worthwhile Alternative?

Tracey Syphex, ex-offender, is now vice-president of Phax Group Construction and Design, LLC; managing partner with Phax Group LLC, a real estate development company; and the 2011 Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce’s Entrepreneur of the Year. He was a panelist at the Princeton Area Community Democratic Organization’s recent discussion “Trenton From the Grassroots.” He credited his turn-around to having learned a trade at the Mercer County Vocational Technical School.

Until the late 1990’s, Trenton High had its own vocational school, taught by professionals in their fields. Students spent three periods daily, for two to three years, learning commercial foods, auto body, auto mechanics, cosmetology, masonry, and a host of other trades. When I first started teaching there in 1981, I could bring in my dry cleaning, get my hair cut, have my lawn mower tuned, and get my car un-dented and repainted. My job was to help my special education students read and understand vocational vocabulary. In the process I became versed in unibody auto construction and the diseases of fingernails. One of my students learned welding and moved to Texas as a skilled worker. Nursing students earned certification. Trenton’s vocational program was impressive.

But the vocational school began to decline as state-wide testing increased. Students who didn’t pass the Minimum Basic Skills test were required to take remedial classes, and suddenly there was no room in their schedules for a three-period vocational course. Over time, vocational classes became filled predominately with special education students because they were not required to pass the state tests. Some vocational teachers chafed that they had not been trained to handle so many special ed kids.

In the school year1999-2000, the vocational school was closed, and much of its equipment disappeared. Rumor had it that the Mercer County freeholders had pressured Trenton to close its vocational school because it competed with the county vo-tech schools. Under a new superintendent, Trenton High was reconfigured into small learning communities (SLCs), all of which were intended to lead to a career but few of which offered hands-on experiences, and those only to seniors. The vocational building itself was divided into standard classrooms; only the shop housing cosmetology was spared. The Medical Arts SLC took in the vocational school’s nursing and cosmetology programs. Business and Computer Technology absorbed the former business courses and opened a huge duplicating room under the sponsorship of Xerox. A few students worked there each period, supervised by a Xerox employee. Applied Engineering offered computer-assisted design, but SLC’s like Law and Justice and Fine and Performing Arts offered no trade.

I myself joined the Medical Arts SLC but was never assigned to help students with vocational vocabulary. Medical Arts sent its seniors across the street to Saint Francis Hospital, where they learned various skills from the hospital staff. For two years, the nursing program continued at the hospital, but then it was decided that the student/teacher ratio was too costly and the program was discontinued. The nursing teacher retired in disgust. Of course it was costly; kids got certified! By 2006, Medical Arts had been moved to a building far from Saint Francis. No Child Left Behind forced everyone to concentrate on those high-stakes tests.

Do we need vocational education? Tracey Syphex was saved by his trade. Now he hires and trains felons who’ve been released from prison. Recently, the PBS Newshour’s “American Graduate” series has showcased the benefits of hands-on learning and internships. Businesses cry out that they need skilled workers. Vocational education—half a day with a professional—is costly, but so is prison and so are social programs to support the unemployed.

The Language of Responsibility

I’ve always been fascinated by the language we use to describe falling. With little kids, we say “Susie fell.” But for an elderly person, we say “Grandma had a fall.” That passiveness—as if Grandma were a victim of gravity— is akin to “accidents happen.” Maybe I’m a control freak, but I don’t much believe in accidents.

Recently I asked whether a young man who’d damaged his grandmother’s car in a rear-end collision felt embarrassed. Oh no, I was told. It was a rainy night, and the woman in front of him stopped short. So much for responsibility! But wouldn’t the young man gain a greater sense of control, of pride in his potential power, if he acknowledged that he hadn’t kept a safe following distance?

I worry about a little boy who leaves a trail of broken toys and bruised buddies as he zooms through his play—all “by accident” and thus forgiven. I explain that although his intention is to do no harm, some forethought about cause and effect is needed. I tell him about a kid whose playmate swung him around near a flagpole. The resulting concussion necessitated weeks of missed school and left him too dizzy even to watch TV. The little boy’s eyes grow wide, but I’m afraid he still wouldn’t notice a flagpole.

Years ago at Trenton High, a young man who usually loved science came in, put his head on his desk, and hid his face in his arms. I went over, bent down, and realized he was crying. Two members of his family had been seriously injured the previous snowy night when the car in front had skidded on a patch of ice and they had been unable to avoid a collision. “I should have driven them home,” my student sobbed.

You? I tried to console him. “It’s not your fault. What could you have done?”

He looked up, still berating himself. “I race stock cars. I know how to swerve to avoid collisions.” So much for what I knew about my students, but what a sense of responsibility! He believed that, given the weather, he should have anticipated issues with icy patches and volunteered to drive. Too much forethought?

When is an “accident” an accident, and what is the impact of the language we choose? I don’t have the answers, but the question seems useful.

I Hate My Skin

Trish made the following comment on my post “Asians Are Smarter,” which I’m publishing with her permission. “I so disliked the title of this post that I almost didn’t read it. But, now I am glad I did. Your blog is certainly touching some nerves with me. My husband and I are Caucasian. We live in Trenton. We are the parents of a six year old African American boy. Before we adopted him, six years ago, I feel like I had considered every aspect of raising a child here. Each day, tiny little things happen to remind me that I cannot ignore race. Our son is reminding us too. His questions and comments sometimes take me by surprise. “I hate my skin!” he has said! That is just one of many things that really make me stop and think hard about raising our child. Just recently, a friend told me she purposely uses the words Caucasian and African American with her children. I have started doing the same. I am so thankful that I have many African American friends I can talk to and a few excellent books I can consult. Their advice has been invaluable.”

If reading “I hate my skin!” is painful for me, hearing it must be devastating for Trish and her husband. No child that young should have learned to hate anything about himself. But how to repair damage that shouldn’t have happened in the first place?

An image from the PBS Newshour sticks in my mind: Gwen Ifill interviewing John Kerry. I was struck by the balance: two intelligent, attractive people—a black woman and a white man—equally knowledgeable. Margaret Warner or Judy Woodruff interviewing President Obama offers the same balance. But could a six-year-old appreciate what I see as ideal relationships, where gender and skin color are lovely variations and intelligence trumps all?

I wonder if Trish’s son can explain why he hates his skin. Wanting to look like an adopting mom and dad is less ominous than experiencing playground taunts or being told that skin color implies certain characteristics. Or is it possible that a six-year-old is making such associations on his own?

At Trenton High, I was surrounded by such a variety of black people that it was impossible to link color to behavior. In fact, the one assumption I brought—that all black staff members would work tirelessly for the success of their black students—was shattered. But recently I’ve been trying to help a black friend in crisis. Her children can spare neither time nor money. Instead of pulling together as a team, they scream accusations at one another while their mother lies helpless. Fearful and frustrated myself, I find myself suddenly seeing black—linking color to this selfish, dysfunctional behavior. I know better. I hate myself. But when the hostile, irresponsible, loud faces around me are all black, I make an association.

I need to restore balance, to schedule lunch with my other black friends. It hasn’t helped that I was raised on stereotypes, that I live in a mostly white community, nor that I’m writing a blog about race. Thankfully, I continue to have long chats by phone with my friend who’s in crisis—who, though physically incapacitated, remains strong, capable, and loving. But I shouldn’t need such reassurance. Skin color, character, and behavior are not correlated. I know that. But if I make false connections, might a six-year-old?

Asians Are Smarter

For years I’ve heard that Asians are smarter than Americans. Each time, I’ve envisioned hordes of Chinese people peering down disdainfully at stupid me. I’ve cowered, embarrassed and fearful: are they really smarter than me? It wasn’t until I wrote my post “The Most Dangerous Pronoun” that I realized I’d fallen into the collective noun or “they” trap.

Acknowledging that Einstein, Chomsky, Clinton (Bill and Hillary), and thousands of other individuals are smarter than I am has never bothered me. And I acknowledge, unconsciously and happily, the intellectual superiority of Chinese friends. It’s the vision of hordes who are ethnically different from me that’s intimidating. I, a Caucasian, stand no chance. Perhaps that’s what black people feel when reading negative comments and dismal statistics about their race.

But wait, we are individuals. We fit into a spectrum of ability that has nothing to do with ethnicity. We can strive to fit in wherever we choose. I was reassured recently by an article in The Princeton Packet about Amy Chua, the “Tiger Mom,” who spoke at Princeton University about her latest book, The Triple Package, written with her husband. They began by identifying overachieving groups in America today, which include Nigerian-Americans, Jews, Mormons, and Chinese-Americans among others. They found that the groups share three qualities: self-discipline, insecurity, and a superiority complex or sense of one’s exceptionality. According to Chua, feeling simultaneously superior and insecure produces drive. She noted that the three qualities are not exclusive to any one ethnicity or group.

Can any child learn to achieve? As a teacher, I believe so—though how to instill insecurity is a mystery. At Trenton High, students came with insecurity; my job was to elicit and prove their exceptionalism, and that took long enough. But, if I succeeded in convincing them of their worth, self-discipline usually followed. Some of my students achieved.

Certainly I was raised to believe myself superior to others. Mother told me I was an aristocrat and boasted about me to her friends, but she never warned me not to boast. My braggadocio alienated everyone around me. Without friends I became insecure, aware of my effect on others, and eager to please. People now tell me that I’m driven. I believe I have achieved.

Are Asians smarter? I opt for a more useful wording of the question: do American schools instill in students whatever qualities they need in order to succeed? Answering that question is hard enough and will yield more valuable results.

 

 

The Power of Voting

“I don’t know who to vote for.”

“I don’t like any of the candidates.”

“My vote won’t count.”

These excuses were familiar to me, but, whenever I staged mock elections in November at Trenton High, I heard another one. “I don’t vote. I don’t want to give up my power.”

That voting meant giving up one’s power made no sense to me. Wasn’t America founded on the power of the vote? For years, when at least one student invariably gave this excuse, I struggled to understand. Occasionally, a small voice asked, “Do you think there will ever be a black president?” Finally, I developed a theory: some black people are so resentful of our racist history that they boycott the white man’s system of government.

The first time I heard “I don’t want to give up my power,” I consulted a black colleague. She was surprisedand angry. She came to my class and lectured the student about the sacrifices of black Americans who’d struggled for the right to vote. Had Martin Luther King, Jr. given his life in vain?

When our problem child remained adamant, my colleague and I worked out a skit to illustrate that issues important to black people were being decided without their voice. I played the bad white guy, voting for “laws” that repressed black folk. She used her vote to counter mine. Still, the child balked. Issues meant nothing. Finally, we resorted to a basketball analogy: to vote is to shoot for a basket. You might not make it, but it’s worth a try. If you don’t shoot, the other team’s sure to win. The student would give in to shut us up, but we knew he wasn’t convinced. That’s why I was thrilled when Obama was elected. A black president might help mend the wounded egos and restore faith in the system.

As a member of the League of Women Voters, I believe in voting. Votes do count. Perhaps my candidate won’t win, but he or she has a better chance with my vote than without it. Even a shoo-in candidate can lose if supporters don’t bother to vote. To those who don’t know whom to vote for, I offer the League’s voters’ guides and debates and suggest checking the voting records of incumbents and the platforms of all. Voting is our responsibilityeven if it’s choosing the lesser of two evils.

Disparity by Race in Education

I was eating dinner and watching the NewsHour on PBS when Judy Woodruff announced that for the first time in almost 15 years, the Department of Education had published data…from all 97,000 public schools across the country. “The findings highlight big patterns of disparity by race,” she said.  My fork dropped and my ears perked up. “No kidding!” I thought, but then I learned that although only 18% of students are African-American, they account for half of all suspensions and that even pre-schoolers get suspended! I didn’t know about the pre-schoolers, but at Trenton High, of course, about 98% of the suspensions were Latino or African-American because 98% were students of color. With regard to punishment at least, it was impossible to see disparity by race.

The report went on to say that African-American, Latino and Native American students attend schools with higher concentrations of first-year teachers and less experienced teachers than white students do. That sounded familiar. Positions at Trenton High were never all filled by September. One year, when I took over a homeroom, the students called me “Mrs. Staff” because “Staff” was the name on the classroom door. No teacher had yet been hired for the math class scheduled for that room. But was it that few teachers were willing to teach in an urban school or that the Trenton School District was too disorganized to contact those who did apply? For two years in a row, even though I’d applied in spring, I, an experienced teacher, wasn’t contacted by Human Services until the week before Labor Day. The first time around, I’d already accepted another job. The second time around, I called Human Services myself to ask about the status of my application. It had been overlooked. I was then offered a choice of two vacancies, one at an elementary school, the other at the high school. After two brief interviews, I chose the latter.

The DOE report also found that while more than 80 percent of Asian-American and more than 70 percent of white students had access to a full range of math and science courses in high schools, only 67 percent of Latinos were at a school that offered a range of advanced classes. The figure was 57 percent for African-American students and less than 50% for American Indian and native Alaskan high school students. I recalled an evening meeting of the Trenton High School Management Team in 2001. A student had come to protest that Advanced Placement courses were being discontinued. Our principal told him that because few, if any, students had passed the AP over the previous 10 years, success was unlikely. She reassured him that she had contracted instead with the College Board for Pacesetter, a course of study that would be more appropriate for our students. She suggested that he could take up to six advanced credits at Mercer County Community College. She’d been told by the provost that those credits would be transferable to 40 institutions of higher learning. The young man wasn’t happy; he didn’t want to lose time commuting.

Was our principal, a black woman, just being sensible, not wanting to waste time and money on AP? What role does “If you build it, they will come” play? In the ’80’s, Trenton High had a gifted and talented program that produced gifted and talented graduates. It vanished. In 2002, a colleague suggested resurrecting it, but her committee was stymied because the title sounded too exclusive. Perhaps we should have called it the “AP Small Learning Community.” Sadly, what the DOE found out after 15 years is what Trenton students have known for the past 30 years.

Half Empty Half Full – Expectations Clarified

An example from Trenton High in my recent post “Half Empty Half Full” may have led some readers to think that only white counselors had low expectations for black students. Not true! Expectations for black students had no correlation to the race of the expecter. And thankfully not everyone had low expectations.

Kyle, who came to Trenton from Jamaica at the age of nine and who had never been to school, was placed in special education and, in high school, became my student. As he blossomed (he had no learning difficulties other than first having missed three years of school and then been treated as special), I began to see college potential. One of my black colleagues taught a summer enrichment and remediation program for minority students at a prestigious private prep school in Massachusetts. She agreed with me that Kyle should try to get into the program—why not? Kyle’s white English teacher was more realistic than I about Kyle’s chances and accused me of pushing Kyle; nevertheless, the teacher wrote a letter of recommendation. Kyle was not accepted to summer school, but he determined to go to college, especially because as a track star, he might get financial aid. He had my backing, and he was supported by his coach, a black man. On the other hand, his counselor, a black woman, was encouraging him to consider the army rather than college—not that I mean to suggest that a career in the army implies low expectations. Perhaps the counselor, given her large caseload, didn’t know Kyle well or was swayed by his classification as a special ed student. The point is that expectations differed widely; thus the kind of advice and help that students received differed too.

I believe that the adults who advised Kyle were well-meaning, but another incident shocked me. When a young black student in the gifted and talented program confided to one of her teachers that she hoped to become a doctor, the teacher sneered, “That’ll never happen. You’re from the projects.” The teacher was a black woman. Such a black-on-black put-down! Why?

When I first came to Trenton High, I assumed that all the black teachers, counselors, and administrators would be doing everything in their power to inspire students, to prepare students to break the cycle of poverty and discrimination. What I found is that a few did; most did not. Black and white staff alike often didn’t have the inclination or perhaps the energy to push themselves as hard as was necessary to overcome the challenges. Whether we adults pushed ourselves and whether we believed in the kids had more to do with our age and idealism than with our race. What I also found out is that any assumption about race is wrong.

The black teacher who judged people based on where they live really isn’t so different from me. My self-esteem surely rests in part on the fact I live in Princeton. But I never put a student down. Why does anyone put a kid down? Happily, both Kyle and the young woman who hoped to become a doctor achieved their dreams.

 

 

Never Say “Get over it!”

The actors in Passage Theatre Company’s “Race – Let’s Talk About It” had read their lines and then, along with the play’s authors and director, had gathered on stage for an informal discussion with the audience. The topics were familiar: poverty, injustice, the depressingly familiar account of a white couple who got up from their table when a black couple was seated next to themeven in this day and age.

We are allblack and whitefeeling the pain of racism. Who had taught black people that black hair is ugly? Suddenly one of the actors, with a passion that seems to surprise even her, explodes, “NEVER, NEVER, NEVER tell me to ‘Get over it.’”

The audience and people on stage cheer her openness, the courage to speak her mind. But I wince. Suddenly I am white. Those words and that anger distance me. I would like nothing more than to get over itto move beyond the pain of slaverybecause it is my people who were responsible. I understand the painmay feel actual painbut there is nothing I as an individual can do to change the history of that pain.

I’m angry now. I do want to tell you to “Get over it” to spare myself a guilt I don’t deserve. I want to tell you to get over it, but white people are not supposed to tell black people what to do. So frustrating! It’s not that I want to minimize history. I don’t want to tell you how to feel. But hearing your anger hurts. Invoking history continues to divide us into white and black. Aren’t we both victims of our history?

Could anger be part of a conversation about race? Why the difference between those who don’t get over it and those who move on? Whose anger is it? Where should it be directed?

Half Empty Half Full

Regarding my blog’s tagline, Roberto said, “I certainly don’t believe we are “post” racial by any stretch of the imagination. I don’t think that term will ever be relevant in our lifetime.” I know he’s right, but I don’t want to believe it. And certainly I want to keep such a sad truth quiet. When Jesus said, “The poor you will always have with you,” I hope no poor child overheard and misunderstood.

I worry about the children—born curious, energetic, hopeful. Do we warn them about the realities of racism or tell them they can be whoever they want to be? Or both? Do we see a black child as an individual or as a member of his race? When I worked at Trenton High, I heard teachers say “Our kids can’t….” as if they were all alike and as if they needed protection. Here’s an example. A friend from Princeton, who was a graduate of Penn State and an alumni recruiter, had told me that Penn State would welcome applications from Trenton High. After I’d passed the word to the guidance department, I ran into the brother of one of my colleagues in the hall. I’d occasionally driven him to his after-school job at the Princeton Medical Center and enjoyed his easy, bright conversation. The perfect applicant! I was pitching Penn State when a white counselor passed by and overheard. He took me aside and shook his head. “We don’t encourage our students to fail.”

I think of the times I’ve held a babywhite, black, and Asian. I’ve needed to believe that that baby could succeed. The alternative is too painful. We bring babies into a world of war, injustice, and suffering. We pray they’ll be spared.

Are we making progress? I had same-day surgery at Robert Wood Johnson Hospital this week, and I can report that the aide who greeted me, took my clothes, and brought warm blankets, as well as the person who pushed my wheelchair were black men. About ten percent of the nurses who worked in pre-op and post-op were black. A medical student rotating through plastic surgery and my anesthesiologist were both black women.

 

Beware the Black Box

For my first post, I’ve chosen an opinion piece I wrote in 2009 that was published in The Times of Trenton.  Although the incidents cited can no longer be called “recent,” I believe that the gist of my essay remains relevant.  Do you agree?

Beware the Black Box

I discovered the black box the night I got caught acting black. As a white liberal who knew few black people, I’d taken a job at Trenton High School. I’d find out who black people were.

I noticed they dress up. I began wearing spike heels and Sunday outfits to work. Black people are loud and demonstrative. At a party at my house, to which we’d invited Princeton friends both black and white, I showed off my new insights. When the Trenton guests arrived, late because they’d had two parties that night, I greeted them boisterously and did little shuffles with my feet in appreciation of their humor. See, I was one of them. I glanced at my other black guests for approval. Their faces were blank; the sudden silence, deafening.

Like a tourist in the foreign land of black people, I’d noticed only differences at Trenton High. I’d overlooked the modest black teachers, just as I hadn’t counted my Princeton friends as black. And I’d made other assumptions. Remembering TV footage of the freedom marches of the 1960’s, I expected black teachers to be united in their dedication to black students. They weren’t. Black teachers were just like white teachers: some worked tirelessly; others came and went with only a newspaper tucked under their arms, had their TV’s tuned to the soap operas during afternoon lessons, or threw up their hands at “these kids.”

Trenton High had a reputation for being dangerous. Princeton friends called me a saint for working there. For a time, I reveled in the title. But it began to sound racist as my knowledge of the students broadened. Yes, I had a few tough kids, but no one ever threatened me. Most kids wanted to learn and appreciated that my TV was off. And there were students who could have been my own children. These students, and black and white teachers like us, fought for excellence. Administrators, black and white, resisted, saying almost proudly, “Trenton isn’t Princeton.”

Skin color and dress guarantee nothing about socio-economic status, ability, educational level or, most important, values. A Trenton High colleague, an elderly black woman, recounted the time three young black men in hooded sweatshirts had joined her in the elevator in her building. She was terrified, sure of being robbed. When the elevator reached her floor, the young men turned to her, “Can we help carry your groceries?” She was mortified.

So I learned what I should have known all along and what many others already knew: there is no black box. My well-intentioned mission to define what it is to be black was a racist, wasteful exercise.

Yet we keep putting people in boxes. For Cornel West, Princeton University professor and author of Race Matters, the box is the “blues people.” In a recent New York Times Magazine article, “Is Obama the End of Black Politics?”, black politics is defined as fighting racial injustice, unequal opportunity and poverty. Who’s looking out for the black middle class, the black upper class?

When Jesse Jackson criticized Obama for “talking down to black people,” he tossed responsible black parents into a box with the absentee fathers whom Obama had singled out. But when Obama recently shamed CEO’s for taking excessive bonuses in a time of recession, no one said he was “talking down to white people.”

I’ve been put in a box, too. A black colleague at Trenton High told me her first impression: “White lady. Here for the paycheck. Probably can’t get a job anywhere else.” She soon placed me in the cubby hole of dedicated teachers, but I recently found myself back in the box when I exclaimed, “Obama is so articulate!” I was expressing my relief after eight years of George Bush’s mumble-mouth.

“That’s politically incorrect,” a friend told me. “You’re implying that you’re surprised a black man can be articulate.”

Good grief. Langston Hughes and Martin Luther King, Jr, were articulate. Besides, I wasn’t thinking of Obama as black. But Joe Biden and I got put in that box.

White people are usually cubby-holed. As voters we are soccer moms, blue-collar Reaganites or Christian fundamentalists. Contrast the “black vote.” White people are Presbyterians, Mormons, and Episcopalians. Black people attend the “black church.” Our language seems stuck in an historical box. It doesn’t reflect the infinite variety among the people we call “black.”

To me, the most mysterious and dangerous term is “black culture.” Recently on NPR, black mystery writers rejoiced that their stories reveal “black culture.” They meant the lifestyle of black people in Los Angeles in the 1980’s. Dorothy Sayres described the lifestyle of upper-class England in her mysteries, but we don’t call it “white culture.”

Let’s abandon “black culture” and celebrate the specifics: African rhythms, the Harlem Renaissance, jazz, hip-hop, soul food, Toni Morrison’s storytelling, Alvin Ailey’s choreography…. Why? Because some people think “black culture” means an uneducated, urban poor.

Beware the boxes. We’re not in a post-racial society if politicians aren’t “black enough” to represent the poor, or if smart black children are told they’re “acting white.”

Sadly, Eric Holder’s call to talk about race merely flipped the boxes into soap boxes. If we’re going to respect our common humanity and our individuality, we should do as our mothers said and watch our language.