For the last five years Trenton Central High School has operated from four different buildings within Trenton while students waited for a new high school. Beginning Monday, September 9, the 1,850 students finally will be together under one roof — a new one that does not leak.
With the newly built Trenton Central High School set to open this fall, the district administration and staff have been tirelessly planning a smooth transition. Even in June, before the last school year came to a close, rising juniors and seniors came together in a large auditorium at the College of New Jersey to learn what they might have in common with students they may not have seen since elementary school, and those they had never met.
The move to the new building “means we are one family,” said Principal Hope Grant at the event. “It doesn’t matter what part of Trenton you are from, when you step into Trenton Central High School, we are a family.”
The program that day encouraged students to find commonality with other students who had experienced a disappointment, fell short of a goal, knew a loved one with a disability, had a parent who died, or had addiction in the family. After they stood in solidarity they were then asked what they would do to make the school a better place. “We’ve been separated so long that we should realize that we are one,” said one student.
Current Superintendent Fred McDowell reminded the group that the events are “not just about a building. Without you,” he told students, “it means absolutely nothing,” he said. The event, led by Challenge Day, an anti-bullying organization, was months in the planning and involved help from the Trenton High Alumni Association, City Hall and the Housing Authority staff (as volunteer greeters), most wearing red and black shirts, the colors of the Trenton Tornadoes.
Many volunteers had graduated from the original 1932 red brick high school with its recognizable white columns in the front, which closed in 2014 after 82 years. Common complaints had been buckled floors, mold, roof leaks, and general disrepair. Mayor Reed Gusciora, then a state assemblyman, pushed the state to invest in the school, and eventually the New Jersey Schools Development Authority funded a complete reconstruction — a new, estimated $155 million, 350,000-square-foot building — although some in Trenton wanted to preserve the old building.
Now that the two-story new building is a gleaming new sight at 400 Chambers Street, “the challenge is bringing the students together, returning as one learning community,” said Chief Schools Officer (secondary schools) Shelley Jallow.
Among several committees preparing for the transition, a student engagement committee has been planning informational and student bonding events that will continue throughout the year, beginning with a three-day orientation for students and parents on August 26, 27, and 29. Open houses for the community are tentatively planned for Saturdays, September 7 and 21.
Trenton Board of Education President Addie Daniels-Lane, a 1974 graduate of Trenton Central High School, told the Downtowner that “on a personal note, I was saddened to see the old building demolished, but I realized that unfortunately it had outlived its usefulness. I also understood that in order for our students to be truly future-ready, we needed to start with a future-ready building.”
She celebrates the opening with the rest of the board. “We are all excited and eagerly anticipating the opening. This new school represents an opportunity to offer our students unparalleled learning experiences in a state-of-the-art facility.
“As of September 1 our high school students still have the best learning environment possible. (The new school) presents an occasion for the students to unite, to take advantage of all the resources, and show our city and state what can be done when given the needed resources and support.
“I offer our students a challenge: ‘You’ve got the best so be sure to be at your best.’”
In the new high school the smaller “learning communities” that defined the separated schools will stay. These are the School of Visual Arts, which was located at 544 Chestnut Avenue; STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), which was located at 535 Hanover Avenue, the former site of the Daylight Twilight Alternative High School; Communications, which was at 520 Chestnut Avenue; Hotel, Restaurant, Tourism, and Business, also at Hanover Avenue. The Health Science Academy has been offered through the Mercer County Technical School District.
The learning academies will each have their own leadership, separate entrance, and color scheme. Retaining separate identities went into the architectural planning.
Common spaces will be “warm and welcoming,” said Jallow. “Environment has a lot to do with behavior. We wanted to create an atmosphere that is conducive to learning.”
The new school has one cafeteria, plus a restaurant, an outdoor amphitheater, and an auditorium ripe for student productions and appropriate for graduation. It boasts a weight room, an auxiliary gymnasium in addition to the main one, a dance studio, media center and swimming pool. There is more space for kitchen and culinary skills, and the automotive technology space has been expanded to work not only on cars but RVs and small trucks. There is a copy/printing business center. Some historic pieces from the old building grace the courtyard, and four 1930s-era mosaics were moved to the new building.
The curriculum will incorporate technology, said Jallow, with state-of-the-art career technology education, which is an up and coming college pathway and lifelong learning skill, in the education field. Teachers are going to be seeking externships with local organizations and businesses to help them learn how their content areas relate to industry. This is a new program for Trenton, though it is done elsewhere in the country.
Planning for the physical space and curriculum has been ongoing for several years. First, the temporary locations had to be brought up to standards and furniture moved. Current Principal Hope Grant has served as principal to four separate buildings, visiting between them all, with a public address system that worked for all buildings at the same time. Some of the temporary spaces had new amenities, like a dance studio in the School of Visual and Performing Arts, but students had to make do with satellite libraries.
Although none of the incoming high school students had studied in the old school, the rising 10th graders were together last year in the new Ninth Grade Academy, at 500 Perry Street. The former Trenton Times building was formerly a K-8 charter school, International Academy of Trenton, which closed, and the district quickly transformed the building last summer. (The ninth graders had been in the old Monument School on Pennington Street.) Some of the first purchases were bigger chairs and desks.
There, students prepare to enter high school, with smaller communities within the building and early career exploration, said Jallow. “It’s an important grade, a predictor grade, on who might be graduating and attending college. Before the academy opened we envisioned how we make this conducive for getting young people to be successful.”
The first students from the new Ninth Grade Academy will be the new 10th grade class in the high school The new seniors will be its first graduating class. “A high school in one location is welcomed by all. To just be in one place creates synergy within and across academics where appropriate,” said Jallow.
“A lot of time, effort, and sacrifice has gone into creating a premiere school. For students. We want to put the students first, give them a safe space where they can have access to an education that will prepare them for college to career.”
Trenton Central High School, 400 Chambers St. trentonk12.org.