October 19, 2022

School Board Election Race Heats Up

By Donald Gilpin

Three incumbents — Debbie Bronfeld, Susan Kanter, and Dafna Kendal — and two new candidates — Margarita “Rita” Rafalovsky and Lishian “Lisa” Wu — are competing for three seats on the Princeton Public Schools (PPS) Board of Education (BOE) in the upcoming November 8 election. Voters will be asked to select just three names for election to three-year terms.

The five candidates, coming from a range of different backgrounds and worlds of experience, have aired their views in a number of different forums, media reports, and public statements over the past few weeks. Most striking in their communications so far has been the clash in perspectives between those who are on the Board and the challengers who are calling for change.

All of the candidates have many ideas for improvement and progress for the schools in the coming months and years. All recognize the damaging effects of the pandemic and the need for increased attention to student and staff mental health needs. They all acknowledge the need for continued efforts to achieve equity and transparency.

All three incumbents, seeking to continue their work on the Board, are complimentary of school leadership, proud of the work of the Board and the district throughout the pandemic, and feel that the district is moving in the right direction towards better communication and transparency and making sure that budgets are balanced with fiscal prudence and that achievement gaps are being addressed.

All five candidates were asked to respond by email to two questions that touch on concerns that have been prominent in recent discussion and debate about the school district and its future direction: the first regarding school rankings, with some reports that Princeton’s scores have been declining; and the second about how to address mental health challenges in the schools.

The questions and the candidates’ responses follow:

Question No.1: Could you comment on recent concerns — fueled by rankings, test scores, etc. — that PPS might be slipping in the quality of education provided to its students? (Do you think the statistics cited are valid? What are the most important actions to take to ensure that PPS remains one of the top districts?)

Bronfeld: Princeton Public Schools are not slipping in the quality and quantity of education that our students are receiving. Our housing market is NOT being affected by changes due to certain statistics being cited. As a public school in a diverse community, we will always have a lot of work to do, to continue ensuring that the health and safety and academic excellence of our district is available for all our students. I ran for the Board to ensure every student received a free, equitable high school degree, because life after PHS is different for everyone, but I wanted to ensure they would always have their degree. We are not a magnet district; we are a diverse district that I am proud to live in. My son always mentions the breadth of an education he received at PHS. Several parents told me how impressed they were at PHS back-to-school night, with the caliber of our teachers and what learning opportunities their children would receive. Some statistics I’ll share are 1 in 5 teens (20 percent) will experience mental health challenges by the time they are 18; PHS offers 28 AP subjects, however PHS students took 32 AP subject tests, 14 percent more subject tests than PHS offers; 86 percent of students received 3, 4, or 5 on their 2022 AP exams; 18 percent of our student body is special ed; and 93 percent of the class of 2022 will attend 2- and 4-year colleges.

Kanter: Data can be a valuable tool when examining a district’s success in supporting students, but testing data is only one measure of a district. While a recent Niche ranking confirmed excellence we know exists in our schools, that does not mean there aren’t areas of improvement that need further examination. To ensure continued excellence we must support initiatives recommended in the Special Education review, expand programming for our ELL students, continue the growth of Pre-K for our under-resourced students, and encourage the development of programs like the research class, which challenges our students to study problem-based issues. I am proud of the wide array of 29 AP courses available at PHS, but am equally proud of courses like Comparative Religion, Great Books, Racial Literacy, and Horticulture that engage and enrich our students, but which may not add to our “ranking.”  In a next term, I look forward to receiving the results of an upcoming math, science, and computer science review that should provide better, more comprehensive support for our students, but also address long-needed enrichment materials for gifted learners K-8 and clarify how students are tracked for math at PMS. A district’s true excellence is measured by the success with which it educates its diverse group of learners, not just by the accolades or rankings it receives.

Kendal: I don’t think that the quality of education in the Princeton Public Schools is slipping. Rankings are important, but they’re only one part of the story, and they can’t capture everything that contributes to the quality of a student’s school experience.  And of course, the pandemic has made the collection and evaluation of such data particularly difficult; most of US News and World Report’s key metrics, for instance, rely on data from 2016-2019. 

Some more recent data that I consider particularly important reflect very well on PPS, such as the fact that for the 2021-22 school year Princeton High School had the second highest SAT scores out of all public high schools in the state and the highest SAT scores out of all public high schools in Mercer County, and the average ACT score of 29.8 was 10 points higher than the national average. Princeton High School offers a rigorous curriculum of 28 AP classes, numerous accelerated classes, and the opportunity for independent study. 89 percent of our students go on to college. In the last four years, we have sent PHS graduates to such highly competitive institutions as Rutgers (129), Princeton University (66), Cornell (32), and the University of Pennsylvania (22), as well as Harvard, Stanford, MIT, Brown, and Yale. 

Rafalovsky: The data is out there for everyone to see. There are multiple reliable signs that PPS is slipping: our math state proficiency scores declined year over year in several math subjects since before COVID, and in national rankings PPS also declined (i.e. on Niche, PPS went from No. 16 nationally to  No. 43, and in U.S. News PHS dropped from No. 94 to  No. 490).  A consistent performance decline in state scores cannot be disputed, especially since our participation in testing was above 95 percent. The decline in rankings and scores confirms many parents’ concern that our schools’ standards have declined, classroom experience has deteriorated, and PPS has deviated from its core mission of a K-12 educational institution.

The Board holds the key to PPS recovering its place as a top district. As per the NJSBA, the BOE establishes school district policies and goals, including setting standards for the superintendent to be used in recommending and evaluating staff. The BOE approves the curriculum and ensures that our schools are well run. A school district’s primary goal is to educate our children. The BOE incumbents suggest that state scores, rankings, and parent feedback are unreliable ways of measuring the quality of our district’s academic performance. If so, isn’t it the responsibility of the Board to come up with a satisfactory methodology to measure our schools’ performance? Why should the community be content with not knowing the outcome of our educational investments?

Wu: The BOE has been focusing on social agendas for too long, not quality of education. That’s why the students lack real education. My suggestion is: “Focus on the students. Make sure they’re getting real education.”

Question  No. 2: The mental health challenges of students and staff — in many cases caused by and exacerbated by the pandemic — have been a recurrent theme in the ongoing discussion about our schools. Could you comment on these challenges and specify initiatives the Board could take to help meet these challenges? 

Bronfeld: The Board has taken and will continue to take steps to support whatever is needed to balance educational needs with the mental health and wellness of our students and faculty. Stress and mental health issues have been a part of PPS for years, COVID made them part of our everyday dialogue. I feel, being able to speak so publicly about it will help students know they are not alone. The Board has approved resources, including Princeton Family Institute, to provide bilingual licensed social workers, full-time summer guidance counselor coverage at PHS and PMS, Effective Schools Solution (ESS) to provide therapeutic mental health and tier-2 clinical services, and Insite Health Inc. to provide students full-time telehealth access to psychiatric care at no cost (funded through Medicaid). Last week the district had two evening presentations on mental health: 1) sponsored by PHS PTO on teen mental health, and 2) ESS presentation on suicide prevention for parents. I’ve said before, mental health is not a one and done, and as a Board member I will continue to ask our educators and students “how are you doing and feeling,” and I will ensure whatever support is needed is funded and found for our district.

Kanter: It is not shocking that there is a national school-age mental health crisis in the wake of this unprecedented time. During my first term I am proud of how our Board has both advocated for and supported initiatives to combat this issue. We have approved programs that educate students, families, and teachers as to the signs of someone who may need mental health supports, approved the services of Effective School Solutions that have provided health care professionals to work directly with our students (including those students who benefit from these services offered in Spanish), and supported needed presentations on suicide prevention at PHS. 

Our Board has approved district partnerships with local health care providers, increased the number of internal district counselors, and supported new resources like Teen Mental Health First Aid.  The November 22 Board meeting will highlight many of these initiatives to support our students during this unprecedented time. When I ran for my first term three years ago, I had been inspired by the district’s work on the Bell committee to combat mental health concerns, but I know it will be incumbent on the Board over the next several years to support the district in continuing to provide a wide array of supports for our students grades K-12 and to encourage self-care for our staff. 

Kendal: The pandemic was extremely difficult for staff and students, in ways we’re only beginning to comprehend. Princeton’s children spent much of the past two years by themselves learning from home via Zoom. As the students returned to in-person learning, there was an increase in mental health issues. In response, the Board and administration moved quickly to hire an outside mental health provider to assist with student needs for the 2022-23 school year. This provider supplements existing services, providing such key offerings as presentations for parents and guardians, collaborating with community partners such as Trinity Counseling and others to provide services to our students, and professional development for staff so that they are better prepared to address issues as they arise. Thus far, feedback indicates students and families are taking advantage of these additional resources, and we remain alert to other opportunities to assess and improve student mental health in this difficult time. 

Rafalovsky: In all candidate forums, the BOE incumbents stated that mental health (MH) is a primary area of concern. To help address the concerns, the Board recently voted to bring a vendor to PPS called ESS. This is good, but students returned to in-person learning in 2020, and the pandemic’s MH effects became quickly visible. I wonder why we waited two years, especially since similar MH services have been offered in other school districts in the country for many years.

Like all strategic initiatives, the MH program should have measurable goals to monitor its effectiveness. To that end, I recommend MH experts conduct a MH assessment of our district to document a baseline that will enable us to monitor improvement. I also believe that school-based MH services should be provided in collaboration with parents (where appropriate), and effectively leverage other community resources so recipients benefit from a cohesive, patient-centered experience. The MH program should include elements of prevention, education, teacher training, as well as counseling interventions.  

Wu: The mental health of every student should always be the top priority. Communication, communication, and communication will be the key factor, openness and talking to everyone — student, parent, and teacher — are a must. We have to come together in UNITY.

Four of the candidates were profiled in previous issues of Town Topics. Wu declined to be profiled, but last week submitted the following candidate statement:

“I was born in Taiwan. I have been living in Princeton since November 2015. I have two daughters, one son, and three grandchildren. TAKE BACK PRIDE is why I am running for BOE, because Princeton’s national ranking dropped from 94th in 2009 to 490th in 2022 (U.S. News and World Report). First, we must focus on students getting real education, NOT IDEOLOGY. And second, the BOE should have a policy of openness and fiscal responsibility. Lastly, the BOE should be here for all students, parents, and school district personnel. Right now, there is a lack of unity between the BOE and students, parents, and school district personnel. So I am promoting my idea of ‘Unity for all.’ Please understand that English is not my first language. May god bless you and your family.”