January 29, 2020

Community Helps Plan Future of PPS

FIGURING IT OUT TOGETHER: Princeton Public Schools (PPS) Superintendent Steve Cochrane greeted the gathering of about 160 community members packed into the Princeton High School cafeteria on Saturday morning to work with school officials and Milone & MacBroom consultants to help plan the future of the district. (Photo courtesy of Princeton Public Schools)

By Donald Gilpin

“We are here to figure it out together,” said Princeton Public Schools Superintendent Steve Cochrane to the crowd of about 160 community members packed into the Princeton High School cafeteria on Saturday morning.

Along with school officials, teachers, students, parents, and other community residents, five consultants from the Milone & MacBroom (M&M) planning firm were in attendance to help lead the gathering in exploring the question of how to accommodate the growing population of students in the district’s schools.

“I don’t know how that question will be answered,” said Cochrane, or “if it will involve some enhancement of our school facilities, some redrawing of our sending area boundaries at the elementary school level, or some adjustment of our school schedules to allow for greater efficiency. There may be other options or some combination of all of these.”

Emphasizing the collaborative nature of the four- or five-month planning process ahead, Cochrane noted that this was the first of several public forums and that there would be many other opportunities for people to engage in figuring out the answers to the challenges ahead.

Before introducing the planners, Cochrane set the tone for the proceedings by quoting the title of a book by Cornelius Minor, We Got This: Equity, Access, and the Quest to Be Who Our Students Need Us To Be, and its first chapter, “Begin By Listening.”

The M&M project team members reported for over an hour on their findings so far after researching and analyzing existing conditions at PPS. Their presentations included a discussion of demographics, housing, and enrollment projections, as they made a strong case that PPS needs to expand to accommodate recent enrollment growth — about 14 percent over the past 10 years, including 9 percent over the last four years — and continuing growth, as more than 800 market and affordable housing units are added over the next four to seven years.

The planners went on to present a review of facilities, with all of the schools having been built between 50 and 95 years ago, as well as an analysis of educational programming.

Following the presentations, the
audience was invited to ask the project team questions or post questions on Post-its or easels, at four different stations set up around the room to provide the opportunity for feedback on the planning process, enrollment projections, education, and facilities.

Participants were asked to comment on strengths and weakness in the district’s response to enrollment growth, opportunities and threats or obstacles ahead, their top three concerns for educational programming in PPS, and necessary components for the PPS master plan to achieve success.

Lasting well over two hours and followed by a tour of PHS for a small group of remaining participants, the forum provided opportunity for listening and for asking questions, some of which were answered, and many of which remain to be answered in the coming months as the planning continues. 

Themes and concerns that recurred throughout the various sessions included affordability and taxes, the Cranbury agreement, high class sizes and attention to each student, over-building, and equity. 

“I think the forum was a great start to our efforts to substantively engage the public on major questions and challenges,” wrote Board of Education member Brian McDonald in an email after the event. “From my conversations with members of the community who attended the forum, it was clear that they appreciated that an enormous amount of work has been done by highly qualified professionals and that this is a very serious and comprehensive planning process.”

He continued, emphasizing the superintendent and board president’s assertions that the process is a collaborative one with the community working together to find answers, “There are no specific outcomes in mind and there will be many strategies to consider to ensure that we are maximizing our use of existing facilities while starting to consider whether, when, and how any renovations, additions, or new construction might help address the increasingly well-understood challenges that exist.”

Further information on Saturday’s presentations, including a survey, is available on the PPS website at princetonk12.org. M&M promises to include all input in their analysis as they continue to engage the community before developing scenarios for the future, refining those scenarios, and presenting their recommendations in June.