Restoring TCHS: Con an icon from one era be a beacon of hope for another?

Articles in the Times of Trenton 80 years apart almost to the day – January 19, 1933, and March 7 of this year – could serve as benchmarks for the highs and lows of Trenton Central High School. The first tells of the school’s dedication ceremony, when it was lauded as one of the “best educational facilities in the world” and the second of hopeful signs that the once glorious building might soon be readied for the 21st century.

For a decade, the building’s leaking roof, nonfunctional ventilation system, dated plumbing and wiring – plus asbestos-infested walls – have been the source of local controversy. One side declared the building an insult to the community and the students it serves. Tear it down and rebuild, they declared. Another side resisted; deal with deferred maintenance – but don’t destroy a building that is structurally sound, architecturally distinguished, and a symbol of Trenton’s glory days as a thriving manufacturing center.

The difficulty has been that neither side had the wherewithal to do either. So water continued seeping into the stairwells, now marred by disintegrating plaster that deposits a layer of dusty crud to be swept up each night; more water seeped in around windows, buckling floorboards. A few of the school’s 170 classrooms have had to be closed as unusable, and even the main office has signs of water damage high on its walls.

A half-dozen years ago, the building was slated for repair, if not rebuilding, by the state’s Schools Development Authority – as Trenton could not afford to do either, the SDA would play a major role in the decision as to which. Though Trenton did benefit from some school construction at the time, squabbles about whether to restore or rebuild TCHS delayed action on either.  At one point, according to an architect involved in the discussions, a bid of $129 million to rehabilitate the school moved close to being accepted, then complications set in. And soon, there was the national meltdown of 2008 and SDA-funded projects were put on hold.  So, the TCHS roof continues to leak, malfunctioning plumbing spews odors into the hallways, and lack of air circulation presents health hazards to faculty, staff, and students.

A year ago, a group of Trenton parents, school board members, and others formed a Facilities Advisory Board and over the next several months, it drew up a thorough set of plans for gutting and rehabilitating the sprawling two-story building, one wing at a time. Classes and programs for its 2,000 students would be moved temporarily from one section to another so that both schooling and restoration could take place simultaneously. A great plan, carefully devised, and apparently acceptable to all stakeholders – except promises from the state for funds were made and withdrawn throughout 2012.

Then at the SDA board’s monthly meeting on March 6, dozens of Trenton residents packed the board room and overflowed into hallways. Testimony about the condition of TCHS so alarmed speakers from other communities that they implored the board to focus on addressing Trenton’s needs rather than those of their own schools. It was good news to many, as a story in the Times the following day related, that the SDA has been in conversation with Trenton school officials over the past two months – maybe an 80th birthday gift for the grand old lady.  And that the most urgent repairs just might get underway this summer.

In the meantime, the building continues to function, due largely to the extraordinary dedication of its maintenance and custodial staff. Some of the past elegance is gone – great pieces of plaster are missing from the ceiling of the entrance hall, a metal detector greets visitors, and the lighting is dim – but the broad hallways are lined with luminous rust-colored tiles, no doubt produced locally when Trenton was a center for ceramics manufacturing.

The school’s floors best illustrate both its virtues and its liabilities. On a tour last week with the head of the custodian’s union, as we walked from one sturdy but neglected stairwell to another, my lanky and congenial guide constantly bent down to pick up refuse – food wrappers, abandoned worksheets and posters, broken pencils, whatever thoughtless students had discarded. But the floors themselves positively glowed. Cleaned by a crew working all night, they are patched and polished – a credit both to the building’s sound construction and to the custodians who do what they can to keep it clean.

The school’s library tells another sad story. A graceful, ballroom-sized space with high windows that let in strong natural lighting even on a dreary day, it opens to visitors from the top of a half-flight of stairs. But marring the entrance is metal cross-work fencing three feet high. The architects 80 years ago intended that users know they should lower their voices – they were about to enter an academic sanctuary. But such appeals seem relayed in a language some TCHS students today do not understand. The fencing had to be installed a decade or more back to prevent students from lobbing wadded papers from the top of the stairs down on library tables below.

Though an argument can be made that the students’ lack of respect for the building is due to the lack of respect shown them by three decades of delayed maintenance, that’s a tad facile. The school does have several strong programs – its debate team, a robotics group, a vibrant choir, and some athletic superstars. Its faculty, from brief conversations, seems to be making a strong effort to challenge and encourage the students. And as one administrator commented, five percent of the students get 95 percent of the press.

So, the challenge is to get that other 95 percent to bring the school’s scores out of the cellar. Argue though we can all argue about the value of proficiency tests, those of TCHS are in the state’s lowest five percent. Its graduation rate is down there, too. The building’s poor condition impedes the installation of modern technology. School and district leadership are saying all the right things, and surely doing many of them as well.

But they will all breathe better once air can start circulating in the school again. So let’s hope the SDA means what it says this time. And that physical restoration of the building might lead to restoration of its academic leadership as well.



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