August 16, 2017

Princeton Schools Are Redefining Success, And Working to Achieve It On All Fronts

Princeton Public Schools (PPS) last week were once again recognized by Niche, a national school-ranking website “highlighting the best places to live and go to school,” as the No. 1 public school district in New Jersey.

You might think that Superintendent Steve Cochrane and his staff would be satisfied with that honor, maybe even willing to revel in the acclaim. But no, Mr. Cochrane said, proud as they are to be recognized “for the excellence that we see daily in our schools Й and our staff who are dedicated to making our schools places of innovation and care,” PPS has a larger goal.

“We are working as a district to redefine success to include the level of engagement among our students, the equity in our classrooms and curriculum, and how well we are fulfilling our mission to prepare all of our students to lead lives of joy and purpose,” he wrote.

Amidst local concerns, which occasionally erupt into political squabbles or even court cases, on such issues as stress, overcrowding, racism, and budget tightening, Mr. Cochrane is determined to keep the district’s eyes on the big issues.

“My role is to stay true to the strategic plan and the mission,” he said, reiterating the five key goals of the plan:
wellness and balance, every child known, closing the achievement gap, innovation in teaching and learning, and communication.

Emphasizing that a lot of work revolves around making sure that every child is known and treated as an individual, Mr. Cochrane commented, “My role is to be a champion of teachers, to applaud and affirm the work they’re doing to keep our kids at the center of this shifting paradigm in teaching and learning.”

He described that shift: “It’s a paradigm that’s going to go beyond simply getting students into top colleges and really stay true to the mission of preparing our kids to lead lives of joy and purpose as knowledgeable, creative, and compassionate citizens of a global society.”

He referred to a recent Stanford University survey that reported high levels of stress, low levels of joyful engagement with learning, and serious sleep deprivation among Princeton High School (PHS) students. “A lot of our high school students were just ‘doing school.’ They were working hard, but they did not have the affective engagement. They weren’t loving their work. Only 15 percent reported being fully, cognitively, and affectively engaged with their learning.”

He continued, “We’re all stressed, and we know we learn better when we’re not stressed, so we’re taking a cue from what we’ve learned in the world of sports. If a period of intense practice, competition, and challenge is followed by a period of rest and recovery, you actually perform better and improve more. We’re trying to think differently about our use of time, which is why the schedule at the high school will change over the next couple of years.

“We’re creating bigger blocks of time for different types of learning, to create periods of time within the school day and the school year for projects, performance-based learning. Problems don’t present to us in the world in discrete disciplines. If you’re looking at something like climate change, there’s science, economics, sociology, and politics that all come together. Problem-based learning would be an opportunity for students to identify a problem that is meaningful to them and use their research, writing, and critical thinking skills to develop meaningful solutions.”

The Stanford survey indicated that in many cases students were much more engaged in after-school activities — clubs, debate, Model United Nations and others — than in their class work. “We want kids to work hard. We want them to be challenged, we want them to push themselves with that sense of excitement about learning, that joy that should be there in the schools,” Mr. Cochrane said. We can increase the rigor and challenge and learning for kids, and make them well at the same time. It’s not one or the other.”

Mr. Cochrane added that “another layer” to the issue of engagement is for the students “to have a sense of purpose and come away from their experience with a desire to make the world a better place, to give back to their community.” This goal, Mr. Cochrane said, will involve integration of the concept of community service and service learning more meaningfully into the curriculum itself.

Charter School

Mr. Cochrane was both philosophical and pragmatic about the PPS clash with the Princeton Charter School (PCS), which has dominated the education news for much of the past nine months since PCS announced its bid to expand. Lawsuits are pending on both sides, as well as a formal appeal from PPS to reverse the decision to approve PCS’s expansion request.

“The lawsuits are a step we had to take,” he explained. “The funding formula for charter schools doesn’t make sense for this community and it doesn’t make sense for the state. Some changes need to be made. With the expansion we are looking at $1.2 million of tuition falling away annually from the district at a time when we have a two percent cap on our budget. It’s not something we can sustain long-term. The lawsuits are an attempt to keep the conversation going with the people who can make the changes: the legislature, the governor, the commissioner of education.”

Claiming to be approaching the end of the “marathon” of litigation, Mr. Cochrane said that he looks forward to opportunities to work together with PCS.

Bond Referendum

Mr. Cochrane went on to discuss the growth of the district, overcrowding (particularly at the high school), and the need for a facilities bond referendum next March. “Over the next 10 years we’ll see the high school topping 1,700 and the middle school topping 900, but I anticipate that we may also need another elementary school. We have to see how the affordable housing settlement shakes out.”

Adding more classrooms, more science rooms, and more space for inter-disciplinary experiences for students, as well as expanding the cafeteria in the high school, are all on the agenda. Also planned is the building of a fifth and sixth grade middle school. “The five-six school will free up space at our elementary schools without having to engage in any kind of redistricting. We’ll free up three or four classrooms at each elementary school, then we’ll free up space at the middle school itself.”

The district would like to acquire the Westminster Choir College property contiguous to John Witherspoon Middle School and is currently involved in negotiations with Rider University. “As a district we value Westminster’s legacy as an institution of learning and its significant contributions to our community,” Mr. Cochrane said. “We hope to be able to continue that legacy of learning and innovation through our own students.”

In his response to the recognition from Niche as New Jersey’s No. 1 school district, Mr. Cochrane concluded, “At the end of the day, a ranking is a meaningful recognition of our work, but the measurement we value most is seen in the lives of our students and the varied contributions they are making to our world.”