February 24, 2021

Carol Kelley Will be New Superintendent, Chosen to Lead Princeton Public Schools

By Donald Gilpin

Carol L. Kelley

In a February 18 special meeting that Princeton Public Schools (PPS) Board of Education (BOE) President Beth Behrend described as “for a change, all about excitement and hope for the future,” the BOE, in a “unanimous and enthusiastic” vote, welcomed Carol L. Kelley as the new superintendent of the district. Pending approval by the county superintendent, Kelley will begin her tenure on July 1, 2021, when Interim Superintendent Barry Galasso will step down. Galasso has been at the helm since July 1, 2020, when he succeeded the previous superintendent Steve Cochrane.

The BOE members, who have been engaged in the search process over the past year, all spoke up at the hour-long meeting to welcome Kelley, to express their enthusiasm to begin working with her, and to comment on the qualities that led them to select her to lead the PPS.  She will receive a four-year contract at $240,000 per year.

Kelley has served in education for 27 years, with advanced degrees in education and business and work as superintendent of schools both in Branchburg Township, New Jersey, from 2012 to 2015 and currently in her sixth year as superintendent of the Oak Park Elementary School District 97, a PreK-8 public school district outside of Chicago. The BOE members praised Kelley’s superior qualities as a listener to all voices, as an educational leader with the ability to help PPS narrow the achievement gap for disadvantaged students, as a passionate champion of students, as a consensus builder with a commitment for consensus-building, and also a commitment to data-based decision-making.

“The most important thing to the Board is achievement for all of its students,” said BOE member Dafna Kendal. “There has been a persistent gap in opportunity in our district for students of color, students from homes with lower socio-economic status, and students with special needs. It is long past due that we focus on narrowing these gaps. Dr. Kelley has  experience and success in helping all students succeed. We are confident that Dr. Kelley will help us narrow these gaps. Beyond a doubt she was the best candidate for this position.”

BOE member Daniel Dart, noting Kelley’s educational leadership and commitment to students, cited her engagement with the Oak Park community, intervention systems she initiated to help students catch up, and her development of “a great team, super-supportive of each other.”

BOE members repeatedly praised Kelley’s listening and consensus-building skills and her focus on evidence-based decision-making. “I’m thrilled to be able to present you to our community and say this is what leadership looks like,” said BOE member Michele Tuck-Ponder.

In responding to the Zoom meeting announcement, Kelley expressed her happiness at moving back to New Jersey and joining “this amazing school community.” She raised her sons, Jordan and Austin, in Montgomery Township.

Kelley said that she looks forward to coming to Princeton to “continue the legacy of excellence and also stitching a new garment, one that fits each and every one of our students.”

She continued, responding to the welcoming remarks from the BOE. “If there’s one thing that you heard about me when you talked to my references it’s that I’m a really strong advocate for providing opportunities to listen to the voices of the community.” She promised that there would be many opportunities, digital and/or in-person, to meet with her.

“I want to listen to your desires,” she continued. “I want to listen to your dreams and hopes for our schools and for our students, and I want to take all of that to heart and connect it with collective actions.”

Even more enthusiastic were many community members who weighed in along with members of the schools employees’ unions.

“I am ecstatic,” said former Councilman Lance Liverman. “I’m not just happy. I’m ecstatic. Your coming here means so much to all of us. During this time of depression with COVID and isolation, it is good to get good news, and this is great news.”

Shirley Satterfield, Witherspoon-Jackson Historical and Cultural Society president, offered Kelley some perspective on the PPS. “Being six generations in Princeton, I’ve seen a lot,” Satterfield said. “I went through the school system when it was segregated, and I just wanted to tell you how far we have come. You have a wonderful Board to work with, and I thank the Board for getting a wonderful person for us.”

Councilwoman Mia Sacks, Princeton Council liaison with the BOE, expressed excitement at working with Kelley on future collaborative projects between the town and the schools.

Princeton Regional Educational Support Staff Association Co-Presidents Eric Karch and Ashante Thompson both welcomed Kelley. “I can’t tell you the excitement right now,” said Thompson. I was in tears. It’s the right time for Princeton to do this. The buzz is in the community already, in the minority community, and everyone is excited.”

Princeton Regional Education Association Co-Presidents Renee Szporn and John McCann echoed others’ welcoming remarks. “You are so qualified, and we are so excited to have you here,” said Szporn. “The minority community is ecstatic, and we are ecstatic too.”

Riverside Principal Luis Ramirez, who is president of the Princeton Regional Administrators Association, applauded Kelley’s “commitment to equity and educational excellence for all.” He added “We’re here for you. We’re here to help you, and we’re looking forward to building a strong relationship.”

Kelley, who was chosen from a group of 13 finalists and semifinalists who were interviewed by the BOE, has served in a wide range of educational leadership positions in addition to leading the Branchburg district from 2012 to 2015 and her six years at the helm in Oak Park from 2015 to the present. She was director of curriculum and instruction for the Hunterdon Central Regional High School District in Flemington, principal of Milltown Elementary School in Bridgewater, K-12 supervisor  of mathematics in the Franklin Township Public Schools, assistant principal of Franklin Park Elementary School and Sampson G. Smith Middle School in Franklin Township, and before that a classroom teacher at the Smith Middle School.

After earning her BSE in systems science engineering from the University of Pennsylvania and an MBA from the University of Virginia, Kelley began her career working on cell phones and smart card technology for Bell Atlantic, then developing marketing strategy and packaging in the advanced care product division at Johnson & Johnson.

She began teaching in 1994 and earned an Ed.D. in organizational and educational leadership from the University of Pennsylvania in 2005.

At Oak Park, Kelley reorganized administration to promote the effectiveness of school principals and created new positions to support achievement, equity, and inclusion, according to a PPS news release.  She led the implementation of standardized math and literacy curricula in the early grades and promoted the use of research in decisions about curriculum and teaching materials. She expanded the co-teaching model in the Oak Park elementary schools to include special education students and redesigned the gifted program to enhance equity.

Kelley also passed a comprehensive racial and educational equity policy at Oak Park and developed programs to help eliminate opportunity gaps. She partnered with the National Equity Project, supporting a district Equity Design Team to improve the experiences of African American students. She increased the percentage of new teacher hires of color by 37 percent.

Kelley has served as a member of the Executive Board of the Minority Student Achievement Network and the National Equity Project’s Midwest Network. She is a fellow of the Racial Equity Leadership Network of the Southern Education Foundation and an active member of AASA: The School Superintendents Association.

“We are delighted to have identified such a talented and accomplished educator to lead the Princeton Public Schools at this crucial time,” said Behrend. “We remain committed to the pursuit of equity and academic excellence in an environment that supports the success of all of our students, preparing them for lives of joy and purpose. Dr. Kelley shares our vision and values; her passion, intellect, and experience will help us deliver on this commitment, benefiting our students for years to come.”

Sustaining the celebratory note as she closed the meeting, Behrend added, “We have a path. We have a journey. Today is the first step, and we’re so glad to have all this good will from the community.”