Trenton panelists say caring teachers make a difference

A panel of Trenton public school educators and high-school dropouts outlined strategies for keeping kids in school and emphasized that teacher-student connections are crucial. (Tom O’Dell / Photo Editor)

Dropouts, graduates, esteemed faculty and administrators alike gathered last Wednesday to discuss the nearly 1.3 million American students that will not graduate high school every year, the roughly 7,200 kids that drop out of high school every single day and what students of education need to know in order to end this crisis.

The College’s Center for Future Educators, along with the Student New Jersey Education Association (SNJEA) and the Princeton University Teacher Preparation Program, sponsored the April 6 panel, held in the Business Building lounge. The conversation focused on the need for teachers to connect with their students in order to inspire them to succeed.

Wayne Dennis, the vice principal of P.J. Hill Elementary School in Trenton, emphasized the importance of viewing the staggering dropout rate, which is nearly 17 percent in New Jersey and 34 percent nationally, from many different angles.

“I believe we have an ethical responsibility to provide kids with the support to graduate,” Dennis said. “We have to look at this as a three-dimensional problem. One size does not fit all.”

After several introductions to the speakers — which included Jermaine Kamau, vice principal of Trenton Central High School, and Raymond Broach, interim superintendent of Trenton Public Schools, among various other educators, graduates and dropouts — the panel discussed the circumstances which lead high school students to either drop out or graduate.

“I never was in one school system,” said Michael Kelsey, who would have graduated high school in the class of 2010. “I didn’t feel comfortable anywhere. Teachers, I just didn’t feel a connection with them.”

Kelsey, who dropped out at around age 16, would skip school to spend time in North Trenton, where he became involved in criminal activity.

“I wanted to shine,” Kelsey said. “Nobody was telling me ‘no.’ My father said, ‘If you don’t wanna go to school anymore, you don’t have to.’”

Jose Gramajo, a panelist who graduated from Daylight/Twilight Alternative High School after seven years, was also involved in gang activity, but for a different reason, he said.

“Spanish people are easy targets,” said Gramajo, who dropped out many times after struggling to learn English during his first two years of school. “The only option was to be a gang member and get protection from other people.”

The panel had a variety of suggestions for future educators, including the use of technology and innovative lesson plans, being aware of the community resources, connecting lessons to real life, keeping students accountable for their own success, having high standards and understanding that the teacher is only a small part of the role.

Above all, the panel collectively stressed the importance of creating personal connections with their students.

“You will be able to completely alter the course of their lives,” said Hope Grant, principal of Daylight/Twilight. “One of the main things is personalization. That’s where it begins … They can sense if you truly care for them or if you don’t. When you come into education, it is not just teaching the subject matter. It’s connecting with students.”

Kelsey pointed out that he was quick to sense a teacher’s lack of care.

“I just felt bored,” he said. “I had a teacher that just seemed like she was going to work. You gotta love what you do. I’m not gonna care if you don’t care. I care even less than you do.”