There is little argument that New Jersey’s urban school districts are in bad shape. Inner city districts like Trenton, which once were considered among the state’s elite public school systems, ride the bottom of the rankings, have deteriorated buildings, and often are unable to supply students with required textbooks.

And they’re loaded. Abbott districts — those mandated by the state to be well-funded — receive huge amounts of money annually. “There is no shortage of money in Trenton,” says James Deneen, retired program director at ETS and co-author with Carm Catanese of “Urban Schools: Crisis and Revolution” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2011). “The question is: Where is the money going once it gets there?”

Sadly, Deneen admits, his answer is “I don’t know.” As piles of cash shuffle around the district, it disappears. “The kids are getting the money last. The state Department of Education is supposed to be auditing, but we don’t see much changing.”

He does, however, have an answer for how districts such as Trenton got this way — politics. “School systems are big employers,” Deneen says. “Outside of the state government, they’re the biggest employers. They become sort of a machine that works for everybody’s benefit except the students’.”

“Urban Schools” addresses ways to fix the problem from the inside — something Deneen says is both necessary and extremely hard to get done. But Deneen and Catanese are looking to get the world outside the Trenton district involved as well. They are recruiting businesses to help revive a defunct internship program in Trenton, which places Trenton Central High School students into companies large and small in order to expose the kids to opportunities in the world.

Plans are still in the works, but Deneen says talks are underway with area businesses and social services organizations about sponsoring internships for Trenton Central High School students. Deneen and Catanese also need to sit down with Trenton district officials and hammer out the plan, but Deneen welcomes interest from any company.

Catanese, who worked at the Sarnoff Corporation developing and overseeing television, picture tube, and high-definition screens for almost 35 years, brings his familiarity with that company’s Minorities In Engineering program. The program seeks to expose (usually urban) minorities to science opportunities they often do not know even exist.

A place like Trenton, Catanese says, has no major science industry, nor even its former steel and manufacturing industry. Thus, kids who grow up there have no exposure to “even the most basic business practices,” he says. Their experiences are limited, and their choices, by extension, are limited as well. Ultimately, he says, “Trenton High School is a pipeline to Trenton State Prison. We end up taking care of these kids all their lives.”

Reduced to numbers, the cost of failing schools is staggering, Catanese says. Each student in Trenton’s system costs $25,000 per year to educate. All that money gets lost in the system, leading to high drop-out rates, lives of crime, and then $45,000 to $55,000 a year, on average, to cover the cost of each prisoner in New Jersey — and there are 21,000 of those.

Businesses factor in because they ought to be drawing their workers from the surrounding communities, and not just the well-to-do ones, Catanese says. Hailing from a profitable Ohio steel town, Catanese says he has seen the difference between how lower-middle-class kids exposed to business and kids from wealthy backgrounds see business and careers. Poorer kids who grew up hungry become innovators in industry, he says — wealthy kids go for jobs with big checks and lots of prestige.

Businesses, therefore, miss an immense natural resource when they overlook kids from poor urban areas — kids who know the value of money and “bust their butts to make a better life than their parents had,” he says. Areas and economies stagnate because kids are not cultivated to build, revive, or advance businesses and industries. “The companies lose as much as the kids,” he says. “For $25,000 a year, we should be getting a lifetime of benefits from these kids, but we’re not.”

Catanese considers himself one of the luckiest men in the world, mainly because of his parents’ dual influence. “My father was a foreman in the steel mill and was the most concrete guy I knew,” he says. “He always wanted to know the why. And my mother had an immense faith in education. She had no more of a world view than my dad did, but she had faith.”

When he saw the world beyond his affluent steel town, where kids grew up to work in the mill, he found science. When he said he wanted to go to college, “my father asked ‘what are you going to do with that?’ and my mother said ‘go do it.’”

Catanese ultimately got his Ph.D. in physics from Yale and went straight to work for Sarnoff. And his father kept him grounded by reminding him that he had a job, he didn’t work. “Work was shoveling coal like he did,” he says.

After 34 years at Sarnoff and the pride of seeing his own children graduate from the Montgomery school system, Catanese sat back and planned to enjoy his post-employment life. But it was not to be. “It was that darned Internet that did it to me,” Catanese says. “Four years ago I was happily retired.”

What really got him was an online report about how good the schools in Montgomery, West Windsor-Plainsboro, and Princeton were. He figured Trenton would be up there too, but was stunned by the disparity. While the first three districts routinely finish in the top 30 or 50 in the state, Trenton is only kept out of last place by Newark, Camden, and a few other urban districts.

The disparity between kids in schools less than 12 miles apart drove Catanese to call his friend, Deneen, and talk about how poverty and crime were the obvious causes of Trenton’s scholastic downfall. But Deneen told him there were no obvious answers at all. Newark, also one of the worst overall districts in the state, has two charter schools that are considered among the country’s best. Their kids almost all graduate (as opposed to Trenton’s barely 50 percent graduation rate), most go to college, and almost all of them graduate from college.

Convinced that it was less about area than a broken system, Catanese and Deneen took to the speaking circuit and then developed their presentation into the book “Urban Schools.”

Deneen hails from Indiana, where his parents (father in the retail shoe game, mother a homemaker) made sure their son would get to college. He earned his bachelor’s degree from St. Meinrad, a Catholic college. He went onto seminary studies at the University of Innsbruck in Austria (because at the time it was the premiere seminary school in the western world), fully intending to be a priest. But he met a young lady and “things got a bit more complicated.”

Deneen returned to Indiana with his master’s in theology and earned his doctorate in educational administration from the University of Indiana. He started teaching in graduate school and stayed with the profession for several years in his home state, as a teacher and superintendent of schools. He came to New Jersey to work at ETS, where he stayed for 25 years.

And though Deneen did not inherit his career in education from his parents, he did pass it on to his son, who is a professor at Hong Kong University.

For Catanese, the way to save urban schools starts with aspirations. If the kids have something to believe in, and if businesses expose them to the opportunities around them, the kids will be able to set their sights on something more than gritty urban realities. “In the 1950s, people were writing articles about how great Trenton High was,” he says. “Trenton should be a boom town.”

For more information, contact Citizens for Successful Schools at www.cssnj.org

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