Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIII, No. 6
 
Wednesday, February 11, 2009
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Princeton Junior School Celebrates Twenty-five Years of Creative Teaching

Ellen Gilbert

“I thought we’d last a year,” recalled Princeton Junior School (PJS) cofounder Juliana McIntyre recently as she described the church-basement beginnings of the now-flourishing school that is celebrating its 25th anniversary. “The children wanted to stay, so we kept adding.”

By “we” Ms. McIntyre means herself and the late Helen Craven, artist-musicians who were eager to continue the experience-based style of teaching they practiced at Miss Mason’s School, which had closed.

“Doing what you’re learning is transformational,” Ms. McIntyre observed, and the current curriculum and idyllic setting of PJS on six acres of land off Fackler Road in Lawrenceville, are testaments to her beliefs. The site, near a branch of the Shipetawken Creek, includes meadows, woods, and wetlands, where students from Pre-K through grade 5 learn about water management, grow wheat for making bread, and walk through a curving labyrinth when they need to collect their thoughts.

Pete Rapelye, who succeeded Ms. McIntyre as head of the school four years ago, describes a learning environment that “makes my day.” After 36 years as an administrator in secondary and middle schools, he is delighted to find himself working with youngsters in “their most formative years,” and calls this “the best stage of my career.” He runs a History Club every Monday, and likes having lunch with students, citing the fifth grade’s art project, in which students “adopt” artists and steep themselves in learning about them, as an example of the school’s “unique” ability to teach fundamentals, while giving students the freedom and flexibility to learn in-depth lessons. As the culmination of the project, students discuss “their” artist in front of an original work by him or her during a visit to the Metropolitan Museum. “The public gathers to listen, as if they’re docents,” he commented.

Public service also features high on the list of the school’s priorities, and Mr. Rapelye said he was struck by a recent interview in which a student reported that the thing he was proudest of was participating in a food drive for a rescue mission in Trenton.

While Ms. McIntyre nurtured “the little engine that could,” Mr. Rapelye would like to see the area’s “best-kept secret” become more of a force in the community. The current enrollment of 105 students in the tuition-driven school could do with being bumped up to between 110 and 125. “I’d like to get the school on the map,” he observed, noting that “it’s an easy sell once people get here.” Classes typically consist of ten to twelve students. There are plans to add a Pre-K class for two-year olds, and hopes for a science room and other permanent classrooms for “specials.”

Right now PJS students come from Princeton, Lawrenceville, West Windsor, Trenton, and as far away as Lambertville. After grade five, they typically move on to Princeton Day School, Stuart, Pennington, or the current favorite, Hun. “It goes in waves,” Mr. Rapelye observed.

About 25 percent of the student body receives financial aid, and the school’s unwavering commitment to providing scholarships for students who cannot afford the tuition takes its toll on the school’s budget. “Diversity is costly, but so valuable,” commented the headmaster.

Princeton Junior School’s official 25th anniversary celebration will be held on May 2. For more information on the school, www.pjs.org.

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