Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIV, No. 27
 
Wednesday, July 7, 2010
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New Charter School Will Be Challenged At Plainsboro Meeting

Ellen Gilbert

The remaining hurdle for the recently-approved Princeton International Academy Charter School (PIACS) will be addressed on Wednesday evening, July 7, when the Plainsboro Zoning board will be asked to okay the school’s request for a use variance so that it can occupy the St. Joseph Seminary premises at 75 Mapleton Road.

It is anticipated, however, that opponents of PIACS will use the meeting as an opportunity to express opposition to the school, which plans to offer Mandarin language immersion and an IB (International Baccalaureate) curriculum beginning with grades Kindergarten through two, and expanding a grade each year after.

“I feel sorry for the Plainsboro Zoning Board,” said Princeton Board of Education President Rebecca Cox. “There’s no way that Plainsboro residents have any say about whether or not a charter school can open in their town.” The fact that PIACS is a nonprofit, she added, means that Plainsboro will not be able to collect taxes from them.

While Plainsboro residents haven’t had a say about the presence of PIACS in their community, Ms. Cox indicated that she and others will have plenty to say at the Wednesday meeting about why the new charter school should not be allowed to open, particularly at a time when “money is tight and public school programs are being cut.”

“People don’t understand the math,” said Ms. Cox. “While it appears that they will be taking just three or four children from each elementary school, it adds up to between $60,000 and $70,000 dollars, which is the salary of a classroom teacher.”

A lease agreement with the owners of St. Joseph’s has been finalized, according to PIACS spokesman Parker Block, and all of the documentation necessary for receiving the charter has been submitted to the Department of Education with this one exception. “The property in question was created to house a school and has been used for that purpose by the seminarians for decades until 1995, Mr. Block said. “So in essence we are requesting to use the property for the purpose it was intended.” Ms. Cox countered by noting that PIACS only has a one year lease at St. Joseph’s, which has, she believes, another commitment for the following year. She also expressed concern about the presence of religious symbols at the building.

Parents of children enrolling in PIACS do not, apparently, share these concerns. As of the June 30th deadline, the school had 159 students registered from within the South Brunswick/Princeton/West Windsor region. “The students come from over 30 different schools in the region, so the impact on any one school was indeed mitigated,” noted Mr. Parker. There is currently a waiting list of over 60 out-of-region students interested in attending the school.

“PIACS has filled its kindergarten and the second-grade classes and has started releasing the unfilled first-grade seats to the out-of-region waiting list,” reported Mr. Block. “We will continue accepting applicants for all three waiting lists. In-region applicants will receive priority.”

“Contrary to the predictions of those who opposed the school, the families of the students who have registered are quite diverse,” he noted. “Over 50 percent of the students come from families where no Mandarin is spoken. The community is multi-national, with parents coming from Kenya, Korea, Germany, Mexico, Nigeria, England, Russia, Japan, and France.”

“Total immersion is the way to go,” observed art historian Elizabeth Pilliod, a Princeton resident and parent of an incoming PIACS first grader. “We were in Holland for five months for my husband’s work, and enrolled our son in a school where only Dutch was spoken. Within a month he understood everything. He loved it.”

“Studies show that up to puberty, children are very facile with languages,” added Ms. Pilliod. “They don’t have the same anxiety older language learners have, and they’re motivated because they want to play with their friends. Once a child has a verb and can duplicate the structure of the mother language, they have created new pathways in the brain. They also know how to make the sounds in that language, which is very hard to teach. Even if they don’t use it for a while afterward, it’s there.”

“Obviously,” Ms. Pilliod added, “there’s also the suggestion that in the future of the world, Chinese and other languages will be very useful.” PIACS’s stated mission is to “educate young people of all backgrounds consistent with the highest ideals of human development, participatory democracy, and social justice with fluency in two international languages — Chinese and English — to promote a peaceful, ethical, and equitable world. PIACS students will be advocates, leaders, and change agents skilled as thinkers, communicators, and risk-takers who are knowledgeable, caring, and reflective in asking important questions and collaborating wisely, creatively and effectively for answers.”

‘Our daughter, who is now 17, went to a Spanish immersion program in Santa Monica, and it was brilliant,” reported Princeton University cultural anthropologist Carolyn Rouse, whose younger child is slated to be in PIACS’s kindergarten in the fall. “The teachers were inspired, the students were this incredible mix of kids from Spanish homes, and kids whose parents were really interested.”

Ms. Rouse described PIACS head of school Debbie Wei as “phenomenal,” and the school’s plan to use Mandarin immersion, Singapore Math, and the IB curriculum as “a really dynamic program” that will be taught by “a great group of teachers.”  

“This is the best time, ever, to do it,” agreed Ms. Pilliod. “We really wanted to give our son this opportunity.”

The Plainsboro Zoning Board will meet on Wednesday, evening, July 7, at 7:30 p.m. at the Plainsboro Municipal Building court room, 641 Plainsboro Road.

To learn more about Princeton International Academy Charter School visit www.piacs.org.

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