November 8, 2017

Crowded Public Schools Prepare Referendum, Construction Plans

By Donald Gilpin

With 1,620 students, 200 over capacity, at Princeton High School (PHS); John Witherspoon Middle School 100 over capacity; elementary schools full; and further growth predicted at all levels; Princeton Public Schools (PPS) are planning a facilities referendum for next year.

“We need to prepare, and we need to prepare now,” said PPS Superintendent Steve Cochrane.

Proposed expansion could include a three-story addition at PHS, a new community school for fifth and sixth grades at the Valley Road site, upgrades at all six schools, a new space for administration and transportation, space for a preschool center, and possibly plans for a future elementary school.

The referendum vote by the community is tentatively anticipated for September 2018, following submission of initial plans to the State Department of Education in March with construction beginning in the spring of 2019 and completed by that fall. It is driven partly by growing
enrollment figures, but also by changes in 21st century teaching and learning, Cochrane told School Board members at a meeting last month.

“Schools are not buildings, but the people in them,” Cochrane said. “But the buildings can serve those people. How can we create spaces that will connect, support, and inspire those people?”

Cochrane described his presentation as the first of many that will take place as the process moves through the initial design phase to submission of initial plans to a design-adjustment phase, with transparency and substantial input from all stakeholders, board members, interested community members, staff, and students.

“We’re excited to begin this work,” Cochrane continued. “We’re excited to have input from the staff and the community, and we’re excited to continue reporting back to the people.”

The school district’s planning, he emphasized, is still at the idea stages, with no decisions yet finalized and no designs yet approved.

Cochrane noted that 21st-century education calls for the creation of spaces that facilitate active learning, with learners working collaboratively with classmates and others around the world, with areas that encourage integrated and interdisciplinary learning rather than the traditionally departmentalized spaces and curricula, and courses that are research-driven (often web-based) rather than textbook-driven.

Ideas under consideration for the referendum include major construction at PHS that would add the equivalent of 12 classrooms of flexible instructional space plus expansion of the cafeteria; the new community school for fifth and sixth grades, possibly on the Valley Road site; one or two new athletic fields with turf, plus additional space for wrestling; security and HVAC upgrades for all the schools, including air conditioning for the PHS gym; an alternate space for the central administration and transportation should the Valley Road building become a new fifth and sixth grade school; and spaces for a district pre-school center and possibly another elementary school.

Cochrane emphasized the importance of fiscal responsibility in developing referendum plans, with the goal of a modest tax impact and subsidies from state grants and alternate revenues.