September 5, 2018

“Expanding Capacity,” PPS Begins New Year; Referendum Postponed

By Donald Gilpin

It’s back to school today, Wednesday, September 5, for about 3,800 Princeton Public School (PPS) students. PPS is also welcoming 29 new teachers and 26 new support staff members, eight unaffiliated staff, and three administrators — all pursuing the theme of “expanding our capacity.”

The theme applies to both the tangible — the $129.6M bond referendum, just postponed from its original November 6 ballot date, which seeks funds for the building of a new 5/6 school and extensive renovations and upgrades throughout the district — and the intangible — the human capacities for learning and growth in the students and the school community.

Last night’s anticipated Princeton Board of Education (BOE) vote to place the referendum questions on the November 6 ballot was postponed pending final approval by the State Department of Education. PPS received notice yesterday that the DOE is still in the process of reviewing the district’s plans, along with a backlog of many other projects from other New Jersey districts.

The delay means the referendum will not be on the November ballot, and, pending approval from the DOE, the next target date for a vote will be announced according to referendum dates set by the state.

Discussion and debate within the Princeton community will undoubtedly continue throughout the fall. “We will take advantage of this additional time to ensure that everyone has accurate information about the district’s needs for space and security, the impact of the proposal on learning and wellness, and the associated costs, both short- and long-term,” said PPS Superintendent Steve Cochrane.

Emphasizing the importance of both tangible and intangible aspects of the planned expansions, Cochrane wrote last week in a letter to the Princeton community, “Schools are more than physical spaces. They are given life by the people in them. And so I am excited for the other ways we are expanding our capacity — individually and collectively to care, to learn, to lead.”

Later Start at PHS

Princeton High School (PHS) students and staff will encounter a new schedule, starting the day at 8:20 a.m., 30 minutes later than last year, and incorporating longer blocks of time to promote deeper learning, as well as two periods every six days designed for students to meet informally with their teachers and gather for club activities.

“The changes to the high school schedule are anchored in research, developed and supported by staff, and will have a profound impact on student learning and student wellness,” Cochrane said. “The science is clear: aligning the schedule of our building with the biology of our students’ brains improves learning. Adolescent brains are different. By starting our high school students’ day at 8:20 a.m., we are allowing them to be learning at a time when their brains are more fully awake.”

Citing a study conducted last year that revealed that PHS students were getting an average of less than seven hours of sleep a night, far less than the CDC and American Association of Pediatrics recommendation of 8-10 hours, and that “this chronic sleep loss negatively affects our students’ minds, bodies, and emotions, Cochrane noted, “Shifting to a later start time improves physical and emotional wellness. When schools shift to a later start time, adolescents still go to bed at the same time, but they get up later. They get more sleep.”

John Witherspoon Middle School (JWMS) will be piloting an advisory program with teachers engaging with students in smaller groups once a week to intentionally build relationships as well as to talk through a variety of topics most relevant to the lives and learning of young adolescents.

Also, a number of curriculum improvements are on tap in the four elementary schools, with two new math programs, enhanced science courses, and a revised social studies curriculum more fully representing the historical narratives of different cultures.

Promoting Equity

Cochrane specifically emphasized the district’s work towards the goal of equity. “We are committed to this work over the long haul,” he said. I was inspired by the time I spent this week with the nearly 50 staff who are part of the building-based equity teams we have created to help lead us toward our goal. I am inspired by the steps we have taken already to diversity our curriculum, diversify our staff, and to overcome our biases.”

Of the new staff members this year, 38 percent are individuals of color, with 31 percent (nine) of the new teachers and counselors being educators of color. “I am proud of our focus on ‘knowing every child’ and on incorporating into our instruction the cultures, interests, and the learning strengths of our students,” Cochrane added.

“Equity is not about simply providing supports for those students who may be deemed ‘at risk,’” he continued. “Equity is actually about eliminating the phrase ‘at risk’ and instead looking at every student in our district as a student ‘of promise.’”

Citing the challenges of “generations of real and perceived injustice in our community,” “forces nationally that are fostering mistrust and division based on race and culture,” and “our own unconscious biases,” Cochrane went on to express his hope “that by continuing to have honest conversations, and by listening to each other with humility and openness, we will take the risks and make the changes that empower all our students to not only reach their highest potential, but to become themselves advocates for equity in our culturally complex world.”