December 18, 2013

Princeton Says Goodbye to Superintendent Wilson

The Princeton Board of Education and the school community gathered in the Learning Commons of the John Witherspoon Middle School, yesterday to say farewell to Superintendent of Schools Judith A. Wilson.

The event was described as a tribute to the “beautiful work of Ms. Wilson over many years of great dedication” and the bright new space of the JW Learning Commons was a fitting venue. Ms. Wilson looked poised as always as she greeted old friends, former students, past and current board members.

Board of Education President Tim Quinn spoke in tribute to the outgoing Superintendent who has led the district since 2005, the year in which the American Association of School Administrators named her New Jersey’s Superintendent of the Year. As he spoke, screens around the room portrayed student achievements in a slide show of middle schoolers performing on musical instruments, playing sports, working at their computers, and showing off awards certificates. It was a time for hugs, laughter, plans to get together for post-retirement lunches, and a few tears, too.

In March, Ms. Wilson announced her intention to retire on the last day of this year. Her retirement brings to a close a distinguished 35-year career in public education during which she served as an English teacher, reading specialist, curriculum supervisor, assistant superintendent, and superintendent.

“During Judy’s time here, an already well-regarded district became even better,” said Board of Education leader Tim Quinn of a period in which Princeton adopted a standards-based curriculum for pre-K through grade 12 that is implemented among all schools and at all grade levels. Ms. Wilson led a district-wide effort to increase student achievement overall while narrowing gaps between students, particularly among economically disadvantaged students. She initiated a system to monitor individual student achievement through regular formative assessments and expanded professional learning opportunities for teachers and administrators.

“The Princeton Public School district is a very special community of leaders and learners in all positions: volunteers, teachers, support staff, administrators, parents, and especially students,” Ms. Wilson wrote in her letter announcing her retirement to the Board of Education. “My life has been influenced in many positive ways and my thinking and learning have been strengthened by the work of leading this complex, dynamic, and successful district. I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to have worked with so many exceptional board members, educators, and staff members over the years.”

In a profile interview for this newspaper (Town Topics, April 11, 2007), Ms. Wilson described the Princeton school district as: “a very vibrant living organization that ties together everyone across the community. When I think of community, within the schools or in the wider context, much of it is about relationships and connections and understanding what it means to be a living organization, not just an institution.”

Ms. Wilson began her career with a Bachelor of Science in English and Education from West Virginia Wesleyan College, followed by a Master of Arts cum laude in Reading Education and then doctoral studies in Language and Linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania. Her classroom teaching began in Camden County, in middle school English. She was assistant superintendent in the Southern Regional School District in Manahawkin from 1987 to 1995, and then spent a decade as superintendent of the Woodbury School District.

When she joined Princeton Regional Schools, she said that the size of the district was a draw: small enough for her to get to know her staff and students. Ms. Wilson said that she approached each day by expecting the unexpected. “School days are often unpredictable and each day has to be approached with openness and the expectation that something new, or different, or a problematic event will arise. If your mind is not open to that as part of the reality of the day, then I think it must bring a lot of unnecessary frustration, angst, or negative emotion. I have to go into every day knowing that not only will there be lot of work to do and challenges to meet but that probably before the end of the day there will be something that I didn’t expect, perhaps something emergent or even urgent that I have to deal with.”

“I work with an incredible team of support staff, faculty, and administrators. The joy of the work is being able to tap their talents and build the capacity to direct people’s energy and ideas so that it reaches our students. This is an explosive time for research and we are educating children for the 21st century to be global learners and global citizens.”

As a child, Ms. Wilson was fascinated by libraries, books, and reading. In high school, she worked part-time in the public library after school and on weekends. When she first declared a major in college, it was in library science and she holds a New Jersey Media Specialist certificate that she has never put into practice. On her first day at work in Princeton, she went to the Princeton Public Library to get her library card and it’s to the library that she admits to slipping away to once in a while, to the café and to browse the new titles. In retirement, she said, she may well undertake some volunteer activity involving libraries.

In that 2007 interview, Ms. Wilson confessed to one weakness: a passion for dark chocolate. There were plenty of chocolate chocolate chip cookies on hand yesterday.

Ms. Wilson’s replacement, Stephen Cochrane begins his tenure January 1, 2014.