Trenton Superintendent Prepares for District Reconfiguration, New Initiatives

Jenna Pizzi | The Times of Trenton

Superintendent Francisco Duran is preparing to begin his second year overseeing the district’s 12,000 students with a major reconfiguration of the schools and raft of new initiatives, including new supports for struggling middle schoolers, high school academies aimed at lowering the dropout rate, bilingual elementary classrooms and new efforts to reach out to parents.

“When I came here I knew that it was a district in need of improvement,” Duran said. “I knew there was going to be a lot that needed to happen for schools to improve academically.”

Duran moved quickly after he was hired out of Philadelphia last year, bringing in a new leadership team in his first few months and preparing a sweeping reconfiguration that will bring uniformity to the district’s variety of school models. Until now, some students have changed schools in sixth grade and others stayed on the same campus until they went to high school.

Beginning this fall, K-8 programs will be eliminated, and Trenton’s 21 schools will be designated for kindergarten through fifth grade, sixth through eighth grade, and ninth through 12th grade. The plan increases the number of middle schools from two to four, one in each city ward.

“We are trying to align our resources to better support the needs of our students,” Duran said.

Reconfiguration had been discussed on and off for years until Duran put it back on the table, he said. It is designed to put more focus on middle schoolers, who have been underperforming compared to other grades.

The middle schools will begin offering sports and arts, which Duran said will help to motivate and inspire students and decrease the worrisome high school dropout rate.

“It doesn’t start in high school. Addressing graduation rates starts in fifth and sixth grade,” he said. “You can’t wait until ninth grade, when they literally drop out.”

The district will also introduce an academy system at Trenton Central High School in an effort to reduce the dropout rate. Sophomores will will select an elective track in visual and performing arts, communications, STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), or hospitality and business. The courses will be graduation requirements and may include internships, Duran said. A separate “ninth grade academy” will give freshmen extra academic support as they transition into high school.

He is also pushing to create a gifted and talented program in the schools, a state requirement the district has not been fulfilled. Using an online “differentiated learning” system, middle school students would study according to their proficiency level, learning style and interests, with the goal of eventually having those students identified as gifted move into their own program, Duran said.

Changes are in store at the elementary level as well. This fall, kindergartens at Grant and Jefferson schools will be “dual language classrooms” with instruction in English and Spanish, helping students who are learning English and giving English-speaking students an opportunity to learn a new language and culture.

“We have a very large, rising English language learner population,” said Duran, who is Latino and first went to school without much knowledge of English. “We need to make sure we are meeting their needs. Simply putting all of them into a segregated, separate classroom is not the way.”

Another priority of his is to upgrade poor building conditions at TCHS, and he said he has already become frustrated at the district’s inability to get the state Schools Development Authority to move more quickly to perform urgent repairs. The school has old drain pipes that burst, causing ceilings to collapse and floors to buckle, no air conditioning, a leaky roof, asbestos and many other problems.

The conditions of the high school aren’t acceptable to me, and it should be an emergency. I don’t think it is moving quickly enough

“The conditions of the high school aren’t acceptable to me, and it should be an emergency,” Duran said. “I don’t think it is moving quickly enough.”

He said he feels his hands are tied because the repairs must be arranged through the SDA, which funds the work, not the district.

“If we had the money, we could just do it, trust me. We would have gotten the contractors years ago,” Duran said.

Before he came to Trenton, Duran was a regional superintendent in Philadelphia, where he implemented a series of parent engagement initiatives to encourage parents to have a more active role in their child’s educational experience. Since coming to Trenton he has created the Family Community Engagement Office, which will look for “out of the box” ways to reach out to the community, he said.

This fall schools will begin to use a “parent portal” that will send parents information about their children’s school and performance via e-mail and text message if they choose to participate.

“Most of us get our information via our phones or e-mails, so we have to bring our district along with that,” Duran said.

He said he has made technology a priority on the school campuses as well, making sure they all have Wi-Fi and enough bandwith to handle a large number of students using the internet at the same time.

“We have to have digital learning environments for our students,” he said. “Otherwise we are going to be years behind our counterparts.”

Duran said all of the initiatives have the same end goal of improving the success of students, and will at the same time help raise the district’s poor test scores. He acknowledged that test scores are important tools to make sure teachers and schools are teaching effectively, while saying they do not reflect the entirety of students’ progress and hard work.

“We are helping develop our young people to be citizens and effective contributors to society,” Duran said. “I don’t think a test score defines all of our students.” 

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