By Amanda Litvinov / lead photo: Martin Griff, The Times of Trenton
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To see the clip of the teenage Nu-Kermeni Kermah shouting into a microphone that the governor should not ignore students like her during a major rally covered by the press, it’s hard to believe she was once a frightened eight-year-old who had a hard time fitting in.
Her new life in New Jersey was just so different than the one she and her family had left behind in Liberia.
“I made it through the transition, because of all the help I got from my teachers and because my grandmother signed me up for so many after school programs to help me learn English and make friends,” Kermeni said.
Her confidence soared, and by senior year, “Nu Nu” was student body president of Trenton Central High School invited to speak at the October 2013 rally organized by Healthy Schools Now!, a student and community advocacy group working to publicize the horrendous conditions in some New Jersey schools.
“Our school facilities are unsafe, unhealthy, and unequal to other facilities in the state of New Jersey,” said Kermah as the rally-goers cheered her on.
“Trenton Central was literally falling apart,” Kermah told EducationVotes. “The bathrooms were terrible—it was hard to find a working stall. When it rained, you were walking through leaks, so there were trash buckets sitting everywhere.”
The smell of rodents that had died inside the walls sometimes permeated rooms.
“It was embarrassing to bring people to our school after we saw their schools,” she said. “The other kids would call it disgusting.”
Worse yet, mold problems made for poor air quality, and students and educators alike suffered headaches and other symptoms as a result.
Students, parents, and advocacy organizations, including the New Jersey Education Association, came together as Healthy Schools Now! to draw attention to the unsafe facilities and the deep disparities between the state’s urban and suburban schools. The coalition’s ultimate goal was to pressure Gov. Chris Christie to release the $4 billion for school infrastructure that he had frozen upon taking office.
The neglected 80-plus-year-old school was just blocks away from some posh new state government offices.
Since no one in state government would visit their school, students from Trenton Central brought the problem to them, displaying poster-size images of their decrepit classrooms outside the state capitol in a silent protest.
National attention came when NBC turned their cameras on Trenton Central for an evening news segment that featured an interview with an art teacher whose classroom ceiling sometimes dripped sewage.
Finally, after a change in leadership of the state agency responsible for schools, Gov. Christie released some of the funds to rebuild Trenton Central, and execute major school projects in Gloucester City, Orange, and Patterson.
The new Trenton Central is slated to open in 2019.
“I love that future students will have a safe and beautiful place to learn,” says Kermah. “I hope everyone will respect the building and remember what the students and staff had to go through to get it.”
Now a student at Fairleigh Dickinson University, Kermah hopes to someday be a broadcast journalist covering stories “that can actually help people,” much like the one that NBC did on her former high school.