I went over to Trenton Central High School a few Saturdays ago to see the Princeton-Trenton high school football game. More specifically, I went to see the Princeton High School Pep Band, which includes my two kids on trumpet and trombone, perform at the football game.
That’s one of the nice things about having kids in the music program — you get to witness a lot of good shows. In the last year or so I have heard my kids perform at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., as well as Chris’s Jazz Cafe in Philadelphia. A short walk from my house, at the high school’s new 771-seat performing arts center (part of a recent renovation and expansion), I heard the high school kids open for Zydeco star and Grammy winner Terrance Simien, the Count Basie Orchestra, jazz vocalist Tierney Sutton, and the Glenn Miller Orchestra. (This Thursday, October 29, at 7:30 p.m. I get to hear the Miller band again at West Windsor-Plainsboro High School South. The Philadelphia Jazz Orchestra, a band of college and high school musicians, including my two kids, will open.)
I won’t say that high school musicians work any harder than high school athletes, but I would argue that high school musical performances reach a higher level of proficiency and box office appeal than do high school sports contests. Last year at Princeton High I was treated to a compelling performance by trombonist Wycliffe Gordon, who at the end of the program was joined onstage by the trumpet soloist of the high school’s jazz band, Senyo Agawu. It was as if the high school quarterback was scrimmaging with Peyton Manning and the New York Giants.
So on a rainy Saturday afternoon I tucked my video camera into an inside pocket of my parka and drove 15 minutes down Route 1 to Perry Street, and turned onto Chambers Street to Trenton High.
It’s an imposing school, with a bell tower overhead and two wings on either side taking up a very long city block. But at 77 years old, Trenton High is down on its luck. The state’s Schools Development Authority (SDA) wants to tear it down and replace it with a modern structure. But some Trenton High alumni and residents argue that the school is a landmark of a community that has already lost too much of its identity. Replacement buildings are usually done on the cheap. They have devised a plan to renovate the old school, instead of tearing it down.
As Jennifer B. Leynes, president of the Trenton Historical Society, argued in the Trenton Times, the school’s urban location is a strike against it: “In New Jersey the SDA has favored renovating schools in suburban districts, including high schools in Princeton and Teaneck. In urban districts, however, the SDA is predisposed to demolishing historic schools, with Camden High School being the most recent and blatant example. Yet schools like Trenton High are integral to the fabric of our urban neighborhoods, and they are as important to our cities as the historic suburban schools are to theirs. Why, then, has it become state policy to respect history in some municipalities and destroy it in others?”
Building maintenance issues may be minor compared to the violence that has been reported both in the school and in its environs after the final bell sounds. The Trenton Times has been filled with headlines concerning the violence. The other day an “after school program” was announced. It wasn’t the college prep assistance or music mentoring that you would expect at a school like Princeton High; it was a law enforcement program aimed at getting kids safely from the school to their homes. The strategy: Barricade the street in front of the high school and keep gang-influenced troublemakers away from the students.
With all those headlines in the air, why wouldn’t I pull my camera from its obvious blue bag and stick it out of sight in my parka while I walked from my car to the field? But like a lot of bad publicity, it can lead to exaggerated fears. In fact, on the streets surrounding the school and on the athletic fields behind it, the Trenton people were cordial and friendly. The football team, which has lost 17 straight games, nevertheless put up a spirited fight and showed good sportsmanship throughout.
All is not lost at Trenton High. While the school may not have the 94 percent post-secondary school acceptance rate that Princeton High basks in, it does take a practical approach to its curriculum. The school includes six “small learning communities,” including Applied Engineering, Media Technology, Business, Computer, Technology & Design; Performing Arts; Hotel Restaurant and Tourism; and Junior ROTC.
But, while the state has attempted to even out the public school funding disparities between rich communities such as Princeton and poor cities such as Trenton, there’s still a tale of two cities here. While the Trenton High School “Invincible Marching Band” has entertained at plenty of Princeton University alumni P-rades, I doubt that it has undertaken the kinds of excursions enjoyed by my kids in Princeton, financed mostly by the parents.
Last year my older boy traveled to Italy (twice), Disney World, and Boston, as well as that trip to Washington, D.C. As this school year began the music schedule included a possible trip to Monterey, California, and a 16-day summer trip to Greece. That was considered to be a modest schedule for this year’s Princeton High jazz band (though still a challenge to the parents’ wallets). A few weeks into the current school year, however, my kid heard that the orchestra needed a trumpet player. He signed up. The orchestra, we discover, has a trip of its own: An eight-day tour of China in February.
Here in Princeton, the parents may get a little poorer, or at least dig deeper into their savings, but the rich get richer.