January 10, 2018

Princeton Schools Look To October Referendum; Info Sessions This Week

By Donald Gilpin

As Princeton Public Schools prepare building plans to submit to the State Department of Education (DOE) in April, leading up to an October 2 facilities referendum vote, Superintendent Steve Cochrane is urging families, staff, and community members to attend one of two information sessions to be held at John Witherspoon Middle School (JWMS) Wednesday, January 10 at 7 p.m. and Thursday, January 11 at 9:30 a.m. 

Cochrane emphasized that the referendum is driven by the critical need for space, “the transformational opportunity for us to create spaces that accommodate 21st century learning,” and the need for a responsible investment in the children and the community that is cognizant of the tax impact.

The discussions “will explore why we need to expand our facilities, what that expansion might include, how the expansion would be designed and funded, and when the vote by the community would take place,” Cochrane wrote.

Next month additional town meetings will take place, where consultant Heidi Hayes Jacobs, author and leading international authority on 21st century learning will speak, and people will hear directly from the architects and share with them some of their thoughts and visions. The architects will return in March to show more concrete design ideas before the district presents its preliminary plans to the Department of Education.

“We are beginning the process of sharing information about the need, the opportunity to transform learning, and about the financial impact,” Cochrane said. “We welcome feedback from all stake holders. We know we’re building for rapidly rising enrollment. That crunch will continue to increase. We’re also building within the budget.”

Princeton High School (PHS) is already 200 over capacity; JWMS is 100 over capacity; the elementary schools are full; and most recent demographic projections predict further growth at all levels. JWMS, with a capacity of 626, for example, has a current population of 727 students, with 850 projected for 2020, and 967 by 2022.

The district’s planning is still at the idea stages, but proposed expansions would probably include a significant addition and internal renovations at PHS; a new community school for fifth and sixth grades at the Valley Road site that is currently occupied by administration, maintenance, and transportation; upgrades in all six schools; a new space for administration, transportation, and maintenance staff, who would move from Valley Road; and the possibility of space for a preschool center.

The Board is currently investigating places around town “we could slide into without having to build another structure. We have a couple of live possibilities,” Cochrane said.

The architects, Spiezle Architectural Group, collaborating on the design with Fielding Nair International, have been on site this week, touring buildings, listening to teachers, administrators, board members, and community leaders. The superintendent met Monday with a design team of teachers, administrators, and architects.

Cochrane emphasized that 21st century education calls for the creation of flexible spaces that facilitate active learning, with learners working collaboratively with classmates and others around the world, with areas that encourage integrated and interdisciplinary learning and courses and curricula that are research-driven.

In discussing the idea of the creation of a school for grades five and six, Cochrane noted both practical, logistical issues, freeing up space at the elementary schools and JWMS, and educational, developmental advantages.

“We’re looking at the five-six model as meeting the developmental needs of that particular group of kids, by extending the elementary experience even as it gives kids of that age an opportunity to explore and test their independence, then come back to the nurturing environment,” he said. “That would be an exciting and educational experience for that group of students, also preserving the neighborhood schools and keeping the community together.”

The larger community will be able to share their thoughts with Cochrane and Board members at the Wednesday and Thursday sessions.

As Cochrane said to the Board last fall, “Schools are not buildings, but the people in them. But the buildings can serve those people.” And he went on to raise the question that he, the schools, and the community will be grappling with in the next nine months leading up to the referendum: “How can we create spaces that will connect, support, and inspire those people?”