May 26, 2021

Profiles in Education | Joyce Jones: “Role Model and Advocate” at Princeton High School for 51 Years

51 YEARS AT PHS: Joyce Jones, who will be retiring at the end of this year, in a 1970s Princeton High School (PHS) yearbook photo. Last Thursday, May 20, was Joyce Jones Day at PHS, celebrating her 51 years of service as a physical education teacher, coach, and peer group leader “with a vision for her students.” (Photo courtesy of Princeton Public Schools)

By Donald Gilpin

Celebrating Joyce Jones,” the banner read. “Teaching us to learn from the past, prepare for the future, and embrace the present.”

Last Thursday, May 20, was Joyce Jones Day at Princeton High School (PHS), honoring Jones on the eve of her retirement after 51 years at PHS — as physical education teacher, coach, and peer group program leader.

The celebrations included banners and balloons, music, commemorative pins, a special Princeton proclamation, and a wide range of tributes and reminiscences from former and current colleagues and guests.

In a phone interview last Saturday, Jones reflected on her career at PHS and “the moments when I think I’ve made a difference.”

She recalled the last meeting of her peer group leaders a few years ago when a graduating senior got up to speak: “‘Thank you for teaching my mom how to be a leader and facilitator,’ he said, and he also named his two brothers who had been in peer group. ‘And I’m the last one and I want to say thank you as well.’ Everyone was listening, and somehow that statement spoke volumes for me. As I reflect back I see that not just in coaching but also in the peer leadership program and in my classes, there are the students that I know I have touched, but there are also the ones I may have no idea I have influenced. That’s special.”

Jones started at PHS in 1970 “with a vision for her students and the desire to empower young women participating in sports,” according to Thursday’s proclamation. She was the PHS field hockey coach for more than 30 years, leading the team to the New Jersey State Championship in 1984. Also head coach of girls lacrosse at PHS, she coached that team to a state championship in 1985.

As part of the original peer leadership group staff, which created the program in 1979, Jones went on to help build up the peer group to include the entire ninth grade every year, and she was instrumental in developing a team of teachers to train participating seniors. Jones remains a part of the leadership of the peer group, which has been expanded and replicated in other schools throughout the region over the past 40 years.

“It’s been very important for the freshmen to have an opportunity to connect with other freshmen and experience a belonging-ness at school,” she said. “That’s very important because the high school for freshmen can be a scary place. It’s also an opportunity to create a connection with a senior, an older person who is where they want to be some day.”

Since its inception in 1979, Jones says, the essence of the program has remained the same. “Some of the activities have changed over the years, but the bottom line is to support the freshmen to make a smooth transition to high school, and that underlying theme is still there,” she noted. “That hasn’t changed. They are making connections and establishing relationships with their peers and the school.”

In the most important ways, Jones believes that kids haven’t changed so much since 1970. “Over the years, what those seniors want to do is to go out and make a difference for the freshmen,” she said. “The way in which it’s done may have changed, especially with Zoom. They have to be innovative, and they are very savvy in coming up with ideas for how to deliver a lesson online instead of in person. Their overall commitment to freshmen and making a difference in the school — it’s there — it has not changed. I’m very proud of them.”

Students Speaking Out

One change that Jones did note was in the students’ level of political engagement. “They speak out more now,” she said. “In the past year I had more kids signing petitions and wanting me to sign petitions than I’ve ever had before in my career. There are a lot of different causes they are taking on, and they’ve asked me to be a part of it.”

Jones recalled student walkouts at PHS in the 1970s. “They’ve always been connected to the outside world on big issues, but now they’re taking on more, and it’s more aggressive. I think that’s good. They need to be listened to — not that we have to take action on everything they request, but I think of PHS as very progressive.”

She continued, “The greatest gift anyone can give to another human being is listening, and I think sometimes teens see that we’re not listening to them.” She cited an incident earlier this year when hundreds of students attended a virtual Board of Education meeting to object to proposed schedule changes. “The School Board listened, and they didn’t change the schedule,” she said. “They fulfilled our request. They listened to us.”

Quest for Racial Equity

As an African American educator, Jones has seen some changes in racial equity over the years, but not enough. “It’s in progress, but we need to up the ante,” she said. “I’m not saying we’re not making a concerted effort, but we need to up the game, be more conscious of the gap and what we can do to close that gap. I don’t think it will ever be completely closed, but we have to work on it at a faster pace than what we have over the past 30 years.”

She pointed out the need for more teachers of color in the Princeton Public Schools. “Does our teaching staff reflect the percentage of Asian or Latino or African American students in the schools?” she asked. “I can count on one or two hands the number of Black teachers in the high school since I’ve been there — not a lot — and I’m talking about 50 years.”

Jones talked about attending a Black educators conference recently and hearing stories about teachers being left out, intentionally or unintentionally not included in social or professional gatherings. “It’s just the way the system is set up,” she said. “A lot of teachers of color are confronted with isolation.”

She fondly recalled some of her positive relationships — Carol Wimberg, Tom Murray, Larry Ivan, and others — from her early days at PHS. “They took me under their wing. They showed me the way,” she said.

But she also remembered, as a young lacrosse player trying out for the United States Women’s National Lacrosse Team, being turned down and later hearing from a member of the selection committee, “Yes, Joyce, you would have been on the team, but they just didn’t know who to put as your roommate.”

Jones reflected, “I said to myself, ‘You’re a pioneer, and you’re paving the way for others.’ An African American woman made the team a few years later.”

First Generation In College

Jones grew up in Linden, New Jersey, where she went to high school. Her father was a contractor, who went to school at night. “When I was young, he was honored for building a church in Morristown that’s still standing,” she said.

Her father insisted that she go to college. Her high school recommended that she go to secretary school, “but my dad said no. He demanded that I go to college.”

She saw Trenton State College, now The College of New Jersey, for the first time when he dropped her off to begin her freshman year, and there she developed her interest in health, physical education, and sports. She’d never picked up a field hockey stick before she came to college. “We didn’t have sports in my high school,” she said. “We just had three play dates during the year — volleyball in the fall, basketball in the winter, softball in the spring. That was it.”

By her sophomore year Jones was playing on the Trenton State varsity teams for field hockey, basketball, and lacrosse. “That’s how I got started. Next thing I knew I was student teaching at Grice Junior High in Hamilton.” Her first year of teaching was also at Grice. Then in 1970, eager to start coaching along with her teaching, she took a job at PHS, where she has been ever since.

The Next Chapter

After the PHS graduation on June 22, Jones’ future is yet to be determined. She lives in Newtown, Pennsylvania, and has relatives in Georgia, New Jersey, and Connecticut, but the next chapter of her story may well be written in another country.

Since 1992 she has been part of the International Black Summit, an annual gathering of the Black community in early August each year taking place in such locations as Ottawa, Toronto, Belize, Angola, Guyana, Anguilla, and Kenya.

“Every year, once a year, it’s the place where I get my rejuvenation in a celebration of who we are,” she said. “It’s about ending the murders of our men, women, and children around the world, and it’s connected to what’s been happening in the United States in past years.”

She’s not sure where she will end up, but she wants to revisit some of the places where she attended International Black Summit gatherings, and she definitely wants to be near an ocean somewhere in the world. “I want to live near a beach and every morning get up and have sand going between my toes,” she said. “I love the ocean. For at least part of the year, I want to live near the ocean.”

Joyce Jones Day last week was one of many celebrations Jones has experienced over the years. She talked about the two occasions when the PHS yearbook has been dedicated to her; the state and county championship teams she has coached, their victories and their reunions; and the inception of the peer leadership program and being a part of the founder’s vision.

“Those moments become so alive and real,” she said. And she mentioned students coming back long after graduation. “You can just see and hear what they’ve done in their lives and what they’re contributing. Some of them are still into sports, working with school or club teams.”

She continued, “It’s in those moments when you can reflect and see what your accomplishments are. Those are the moments when I think I’ve made a difference.”