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Vol. LXIV, No. 1
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Wednesday, January 6, 2010
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Proposed Charter School Looks Ahead Despite Princeton District Opposition

Ellen Gilbert

Princeton’s International Academy Charter School (IACS) Lead Founder Bonnie Liao quotes E.M. Forster in her formatted email sign-off: “We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” The notion of “letting go” is a significant one in the current discussion about the proposed school. After a meeting with State Department of Charter School representatives, IACS spokesperson Parker Block described the school’s founders as “cautiously optimistic” about its eventual approval on January 15. If and when this happens, Princeton public school administration may need to begin “letting go” of some of its assumptions regarding the viability of a second charter school in the district.

Mr. Parker described Superintendent Judy Wilson as “frustrated” by the fact that the state has control over the approval process for charter schools, rather than the local school districts whose budgets are affected by the decision to create new schools. A percentage of the state’s per capita allowance for each child in the district moves with him or her if they switch to the new school. A current Federal government initiative supporting charter schools, and Representative Rush Holt’s (D-12) enthusiasm for them, also do not bode well for the district’s wish to draw the line on new charter schools, Mr. Parker added.

Among Ms. Wilson’s grievances, he said, is the fact that “the state of New Jersey has not established a threshold for determining when a school district needs a charter school.” This “is code,” he believes, for the perception that “poor school districts are the ones that need charter schools, and that they are intended for districts where schools are dysfunctional.”

“I am not anti-charter,” said Ms. Wilson in response to an email query. “There are places and situations where charters are and might continue to be the answer, but there are major issues for New Jersey charters that have not been addressed by our Department of Education or the legislature.”

About half-a-dozen Mandarin immersion charter schools around the country are already flourishing, Mr. Parker noted, describing them as “innovative” reflections of “very forward-looking school districts,” rather than “remedial” interventions. The proposed school would offer Mandarin immersion classes and an International Baccalaureate program. The school plans to begin with grades Kindergarten through two, adding classes each year up to grade eight.

By fourth or fifth grade, IACS founders hope that 50 percent of their school’s classes will be taught in Mandarin. “Kids don’t think in terms of language,” commented Mr. Parker. Non-Mandarin speaking parents will be able to help their children with homework because “children separate language from concept.” He reported that IACS founders include three Caucasians, four African-Americans, and five Asians.

Mr. Parker readily admits that plans for the IACS are riding on the coattails of Princeton Charter School (PCS), which was established in 1997 and has proven to be a resounding success, with numerous awards recognizing high achievement among its students, and a long waiting list of students wishing to attend. IACS founders have spoken with PCS Head of School Broderick L. Boxley who, according to Mr. Parker, expressed enthusiasm and support for the new venture.

Aside from its language focus and International Baccalaureate program, IACS will differ from PCS in that it will draw from two additional regional school districts: South Brunswick and West Windsor/Plainsboro. This way, Mr. Parker said, the school would “take a little from each district, rather than just one.” A potential location for the proposed school is St. Joseph’s Seminary at 75 Mapleton Road.

Asked about accusations that PCS is “elitist,” Mr. Parker responded by saying that “if elitist means determined to raise the standards of our school district, then we are guilty as charged.” He added that the goals of IACS are wholly consistent with those described by State Commissioner of Education Lucille E. Davy on a videotaped conversation about students in the 21st century, carried on the Princeton school district’s website.

“Today’s high school students will graduate into a world very different from the one in which most of their parents and teachers grew up, due to rapid technological, economic, and social changes across the globe,” notes the posting. “What kinds of skills are needed to prepare New Jersey’s students for success in college, in the workplace and as active citizens in the 21st century? What are New Jersey public schools doing to prepare students as critical thinkers and problem solvers who can effectively connect, collaborate and compete in today’s global society?”

“The benchmarks for school success can no longer be based on national averages,” said Mr. Parker. “Children starting school today will need to work with people outside their own communities, so perceptions have to change.” He described resistance to IACS and similar schools as reflecting “a defeatist mentality.”

“We certainly understand their concerns,” said Mr. Parker, returning to the question of opposition from the Princeton school district. “We don’t want to create any animosity.” He noted, however, that approval of IACS was not likely to “end opposition,” but that “it’s all about choice. If parents don’t think the school is viable, they won’t put their children there.”

IACS founders say that if their application is not approved on January 15, they will get feedback from the state on what was lacking, rewrite the application, and resubmit it.

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