It was difficult enough to harness my limited focus in High School with sturdy walls around me. I did my learning at New Technology High, a magnet school in in Napa, Calif. that focused on embedding (pardon the pun) students with 21st century skills like digital design and programming. Lots of our classrooms were portables, but at least they were solid. At Trenton Central High School in New Jersey, where the ceilings are literally crumbling and the auditorium is condemned, I wonder how anything gets done at all. What is it like to attend high school in a campus that is falling apart?
Through New Jersey-based photographer Andrew Wilkinson’s camera lens, the 82-year-old building is looking its age. And it’s more than just peeling paint, though there’s plenty of that too. There is mold, asbestos, cracked paint and irreparable water damage. When I first looked at the photos it seemed impossible that the school was still running. But it is, with an enrollment of 1,400 kids walking its battered hallways daily.
“I couldn’t imagine having to go there on a regular basis, which they have to live through,” Andrew told me. In addition to commercial photography work, Andrew frequently takes on projects with a social justice bent. Before documenting Trenton Central, he worked on a project in collaboration with the Mercer Alliance to End Homelessness.
Part of the Trenton High series involved taking a provocative approach to the senior portrait. Working with several Trenton Central seniors, he took their portraits in the decrepit building. Standing amongst disintegrating base boards and ancient tiles, the students look stoic and resigned. Ranked 317th out of 322 New Jersey public high schools, it’s easy to argue that the school is crippled in more ways than just architecturally.
While plans have surfaced calling for razing and rebuilding the school, some residents argue that the school has important historic roots and should be preserved. However, it doesn’t seem that the necessary upkeep will happen anytime soon. In January, the state denied the district $8 million in funding that would have gone towards making the repairs. To me it begs the question: are these teens being punished for bad decisions made by adults? A possibility that seems all too frequent in the world of education.
One of the more poignant photos shows an auditorium. With its red stage curtains and coffered ceiling, it is truly beautiful. A stage the students should be using for giving speeches and performances. However while pulling out the seats for replacement, someone discovered a significant crack in the floor and the auditorium became unusable. Now it is nothing more than a disassembled room that should be a hub of student assembly but is not.
If there is an image more indicative of how students are being failed by the public school system, I haven’t seen it. It should be a space for students to gather, to sit together, to listen and to learn. But today instead of being the key gathering place at the heart of Trenton Central, the space sits empty, gathering dust.