Lives In The Balance
The Trenton, N.J., school district is something of a giant funnel: Eighteen elementary schools feed into four middle schools that pour into one monolithic structure on Chambers Street known as Trenton Central High School.
The majority of students who enter this funnel spill out along the way. Consider this year's class enrollments at Trenton Central: 1,025 freshmen, 677 sophomores, 489 juniors, and 446 seniors.
As community leaders see it, that means only four out of 10 of the district's 12,600 public school students will graduate from high school. Only half of those, two out of 10, will go on to college, they say. The district argues that those figures are an exaggeration. But by anyone's count, the numbers are bad.
Still, numbers don't give the whole picture. They don't show how the children and parents of this depressed city--the state capital--live, what's important to them, what they think of their schools. The four families featured in this photo essay come from different corners of the city. But while the details of their lives differ, they have much in common. Each, for example, is struggling economically. Three out of the four are headed by a single parent. All are disgruntled with the local school system.
Moreover, despite the odds warring against them, these families--like thousands of others in cities across the nation--nurture hopes of a better future. They dream of decent housing, safer neighborhoods, and, above all, superior schools.
Tatyana Hearns is a vibrant and silly 7-year-old. Tee Tee--as she is known around the neighborhood--likes to paint fingernails, braid hair, and skate. The 1st grader even enjoys doing homework. Her brother, Tony (pictured on the cover), is 8 years old and in the 3rd grade. He likes to ride bikes and visit local amusement parks such as Sesame Place and Sports World. Lately, though, Tony has been having problems at school. He's been upset with his teacher and hasn't been getting his homework in on time. As a result, he is "on the punishment'' at home, says Tony and Tee Tee's mother, Enelda (Nell) Harris. Nell is currently collecting unemployment, "trying to be a full-time mom and get these two on the right track.'' She hopes to work out some problems with the landlord of her one-bedroom apartment so she can qualify for renter's assistance and move out of the city. Nell says she wants her children to have their own rooms and to attend schools where the other kids don't behave like "warriors.''
"With Tee Tee, I was upset because she repeated 1st grade, and I didn't know how she was going to take it, seeing her class move on,'' Nell says. "But she knows what she's doing now because she's doing it over. The reason she was held back was she was absent a lot last year. I battled her asthma and bronchitis. But now I'm staying on her a lot. She has been sick, but I get the doc to check her out, you know, and I keep her prescription filled, and I try to keep 'em dressed warm when they're supposed to and, you know, stuff like that.
"Last year, I was so busy trying to keep bills paid and keep things going around the house that I never really had time out to supervise homework and realize that my baby didn't really know how to count, you know. So this year, it's a lot different. I'm taking time out with them. I'm supervising homework. I'm trying to do the best I can.
"Tony, he's got to make better grades and be a little bit more alert. Like I told him, he doesn't really have to like the teacher; he's not spending the rest of his life with the lady. He just has to go in there for a couple of hours, listen to what she has to teach, do his schoolwork, and try to absorb any little thing that she's teaching. He's trying to make it out like he has a long-term relationship with this woman. It's one year, one school term, and maybe not even that because if I move, then he'll have to go to a different school. The only thing he has to do is to try and learn what she's teaching and to do the best that he can. I tell him, if there's other kids in the classroom that's cuttin' up, he doesn't have to participate in that. You can be in a classroom or be around people and not be like them, you know; that's what I'm trying to teach Tony.''
Describing her hopes for Tony and Tee Tee, Harris says: "To do whatever they want, so long as it doesn't end up with them behind bars or six feet deep. You know, whatever they want to do--just be good at it.''
It is Halloween, and Catherine Wood and her 23-year-old son Eric are at Mercer Medical Center for Eric's weekly visit to the physical therapist. Three months ago, on July 28, Eric was mistaken for someone else and shot at 11 times. One of the bullets hit him in the back of the head. "I was at the wrong place, at the wrong time,'' he says. Because of Eric's injury, Catherine--a machine attendant for a local condom manufacturer--has had little time to get excited about her upcoming move. This winter, she is scheduled to leave the Donnelly public-housing development in North Trenton and move into a better place. It is a big step up. Catherine herself grew up in the 550-unit project, and it is where she has raised her four children. Two of her children dropped out of Trenton Central High School. But her son Terrance graduated and is now in college, and Otis, her youngest at 15, looks as if he's headed that way, too. Still, Otis makes no secret of the fact that he is bored by what he is being taught at Trenton Central High.
"It could be, you know, the way it's taught,'' Catherine says. "Sometimes, I feel you could get the kids' attention if you put some fun into it. Just getting the kids in class and saying, 'This is your assignment for today,' is boring. I wish I could take Otis out of public school, but right now I can't afford it, and next year, you know, I'll be buying the house, and I'll be moving. But I believe it; it is boring, you know. That's why it just makes me so mad to see the ones that wanna go to school, and they can't even say that school is fun. It's because of the system. It's overcrowded. No books. The teachers are mad because they don't even have a contract. So, you know, they just want their paycheck, too, just like any other normal working person. It's not like years ago when the teacher would really get into her students and, you know, care whether they learned or not. The way the school system is, the teachers feel as though they're gettin' the short end of the stick. Why should they put their energy into the kids? So the poorer kids--it's a shame--they are just being cheated. And when they drop out of school, you know, people look at 'em like, you know, they're not interested. They just wanna hang on the corner, sell drugs, this or that. But what do they have to look forward to?''
Surprisingly, Catherine says she doesn't worry much about area street violence. "Not in this neighborhood,'' she says. "I do more worrying about something happening to them at Trenton High than around here. Because around here, everybody know everybody, and nobody's gonna bother [us]. Everybody know us because we've been here a long time. Everybody know that little O [Otis] is Eric's brother, everybody know that little O is Terrance's brother, and they definitely not going to bother him; not around here. But at Trenton High, they don't know that that's Eric or Terrance's brother. But so far, thank God, I haven't had that problem. Otis is quiet; I guess you can kind of see that. He's not going to say no more than he have to.''
A Conversation With Otis
What grade are you in?
You're at Trenton Central High School. How do you like it?
It's all right. It's nothing to brag about.
What's the environment like there?
Do you like it?
What you learn about is boring?
Nah, not really.
Just doesn't mean anything to you?
Like Spanish and all that. The only class I like is typing.
Because you feel like you can use it?
Uh-huh. And it's fun.
What do you want to do with your life?
I don't know yet.
Do you think you'll go to college or start working when you
What about most of your friends, how do they feel about
What's your least favorite subject?
I don't know. Math, probably. Or English. Math and English.
Any idea why?
Uh-uh. It's boring. I don't like math.
And Spanish, you don't think you'll be able to use Spanish?
So what do you like to do?
Play basketball. That's it.
Do you do well in school?
Yeah. I do all right.
Do you do better than most of your friends?
Why do you think that is?
'Cause I go to class. They don't. (Laughs again)
Most people cut out on class?
How many people do you have in most of your classes?
About 20, 25.
And on your average day, how many show up?
About 15 to 20.
And how are your teachers?
They all right.
What do you do when you come home from school?
Do you have homework to do?
Do you usually do your homework?
What keeps you going and not other people?
I don't know. Probably my mom.
Does she put pressure on you to do well?
Yeah, sometimes, yeah.
How have you felt since Eric got shot? Has that affected you a
Uh-uh. Not really.
Just part of everyday life around here?
Do you worry about violence at all?
Uh-uh. Nope. Not nobody mess with me.
So you're safe here in this environment?
Uh-huh. 'Cause everybody knows each other.
And what happened to Eric, that was just a fluke?
A steep tunnel of stairs leads up to the two-bedroom apartment of Edith Luciano and four of her five children--Melissa, Nianita, Felix, and Jeffrey. Another daughter has a child of her own and no longer lives at home. Edith herself is a full-time student at Mercer County Community College, studying human services. Each month, she receives a $497 welfare check and food stamps. She spends $480 on rent, leaving $17 for gas, electric, and other necessities. Edith is well-known by the children of her East Trenton neighborhood; many come to her for advice when they don't feel comfortable going to their own parents. Edith is also well-known at Dunn Middle School. Melissa and Nianita are in the 6th grade at Dunn (Nianita for the second time), and Felix is repeating 8th grade there.
"I feel like I live at their school,'' Edith says. "I said to one of the guidance counselors, 'Can I have a room so I can move in? It would be easier.' Because it's like I'm there every week for one thing or another. Recently, Nianita got jumped. Somebody said something, and, instead of confronting her, it was like they waited until she came out of school. They grabbed her by the hair, another one held her hands back, and they were taking turns punching her. So I went to school. I don't go and scream for any stupid little thing, but she was like, 'I don't want to go to school anymore, transfer me to some other school.' ''
"Anita is considered a loner,'' Edith says, explaining why she thinks Nianita gets picked on. "She has friends, but she's very quiet when it comes to school. She will walk down the hallway by herself. In here, forget it, she's bubbly. But in school, she's more calm and relaxed and keeps more to herself. And usually when you do that, that's when you get picked on. 'Cause they think that you think you're better than anyone else. I didn't think it was racial, even though the group that hit her, they were black, and when you see Anita, you will see she's very fair. She has hazel eyes, brown hair. She could pass for a white girl. But I couldn't say it's racial. I think it's just someone in particular that dislikes her.''
Edith worries about sending her kids to Trenton Central High. "I was very afraid of Felix going to Trenton High because of the fights, the stabbing, and everything else,'' she says. "I says, 'Well, we can always move out to Hamilton township so you can go to Hamilton High West.' What I'm afraid of is--because I have seen it with their friends, so many of them--they start to go, and then they don't want to go anymore because either they get jumped in the hallway or they get punched. They think, Why am I going to go anymore? To get hit? To be afraid? If you hang with the whites, you get beat up. So, automatically, you have to hang with the blacks. And if you don't go by the rules, you either get beat up, or killed, or you get out.''
Edith's former husband lives in the area, but he has nothing to do with his children. "Their father don't know them,'' she says. "He lives around the neighborhood, and Felix will stand next to him at the store--that has happened--and he don't know it is his son, but Felix knows him. They have been very disappointed and very hurt. But it is like I have told them: We have been together, we have worked it out together, we have stayed together, we don't need him. We have had good times, bad times, and we have pulled through. I have been the mother and the dad for them. And, in a way, it's a bad role. Because there are times that you kiss 'em, you touch 'em, you hug 'em, but then there are times that you really have to stand up. But I have liked it because I've seen that they are good, and they listen to me.
"We share a lot. We don't have a washing machine, so we do our laundry by hand, and everybody does their own. If they have problems, then the others say, 'OK, we'll give you a hand.' I feel very close. We don't keep secrets from each other. I tell them, 'What could you do so bad that you can't tell me?' We have promised not to tell each other lies. I says, 'You lie to me, I find out, you going to be in trouble.'
"So we have built together a family of a mother and four kids. We do a lot of things together; they have let me in their life. Sometimes, I'm their very close friend. They don't mind their friends calling me "mom.'' When I'm with them, they don't see me as an adult: I'm one of the guys; I'm one of the girls. And I feel that if more parents would do that, it would be a lot easier. Because we were kids once, too, and we forget that.''
Tony Applegate is a hospital housekeeper, a landscaper, and a recovering alcoholic. Four years ago, he could be found holed up in room 27 of the Sleep-E-Hollow Motel on Route 1 with his three children--Toni Ann, then 4; Amber, 3; and Christopher, 9 months. Tony was a 26-year-old veteran who had served in Lebanon, Grenada, and Panama, and he'd hit an all-time low. With the help of a caring woman and an organization called the Exchange Club, the single father and his children eventually moved from the welfare motel to a one-bedroom condo in suburban Lawrenceville and then to a three-bedroom house in North Trenton, which they now share with Tony's pregnant fiancee, six tanks of highly prized tropical fish, a tarantula, and a parrot. On this autumn day, the family's biggest problem is that the catfish living in the kitchen tank is in critical condition following an attack by one of the piranha. But the family's biggest long-term problem is the Trenton public schools.
"The first school the children attended was Slackwood in the Lawrence Township school system,'' Tony says. "The township bent over backward--went way above and beyond anything realistic--as far as making exceptions for my children. Because they cared. So they did well in school. They were honor students the whole way through. When I finally realized that I had a serious, serious problem and sought medical help, their teacher--Toni Ann's, I believe it was--had the children stay with her when I went to the hospital, to rehab as a matter of fact. That's the kind of teachers that are there. For a month, she took them and loved them and mothered them.
"And at the time, you know, I didn't have a significant other in the house. The children's mother had died about seven or eight months after I had taken custody of them--as far as I know, a car crash--and I've had no contact with her family since. So, it was just myself and the children, and the drinking skyrocketed. I had nothing better to do. I wasn't thinking in any way, shape, or form like a normal or average parent. But that all changed when I went into the rehab, got myself together, and that was almost two years ago.
"The problem is, we outgrew the place in Lawrenceville. So I looked for eight months for a place for us to live in Lawrence Township, for a place that I could afford. And, unfortunately, that just didn't materialize. So, that's why we're here. Now, I'm afraid the children are going to lose that educational edge. They're gonna get rusty; they're gonna regress. After they leave 5th grade here, they will go into other schools. I will probably cut my throat before I let them go there. I just won't. Because to put them in the local middle schools or Trenton Central High School is a waste of their life.
"Listen, I gotta tell you the truth: Jehovah and his mighty legions can come through the Trenton school system with the sickle and leave nothing but golden pillars in its place and replace all the teachers that are there now with teachers from Trenton State College, and I still wouldn't give them half a chance in hell of getting another student through 12 years of school. Right now, there are too many problems facing the system, and I can't see them fixing it. I'm gonna be out of Trenton, one way or the other, by the time my children are ready to go to junior high, or else I might as well give up any chance of my kids going into any career that's worth anything, you know, unless you consider welfare recipient a good career.''