PRINCETON: Broad reflections, little policy discussion in final school board candidates’ forum

The six candidates for Princeton school board gathered Oct. 19 at John Witherspoon Middle School in their last joint appearance before the Nov. 7 election.

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The six candidates for Princeton school board gathered Oct. 19 at John Witherspoon Middle School in their last joint appearance before the Nov. 7 election.

By Philip Sean Curran, Staff Writer
The six candidates for Princeton school board on Thursday offered no areas of disagreement with one another or with the direction of the school district, in their last joint appearance before the Nov. 7 election.
Beth Behrend, Jess Deutsch, James Fields, Jenny Ludmer, Julie Ramirez and Michele Tuck-Ponder, vying for three seats next month, appeared for their ninth and final candidates forum, at John Witherspoon Middle School. They provided little in the way of policies they would bring if elected, offering how their professional and or volunteer experiences had readied them to sit on the board.
“I’m not running with a specific agenda around something that needs to be fixed or a list of things that I want to see accomplished personally,” Ramirez said, seated at a table in the cafeteria, with the other five candidates.
In some cases, they peppered their remarks with words straight from the school district’s mission statement, about preparing students to live lives of “joy” and “purpose,” something Behrend and Deutsch did in their opening remarks.
“This one mission applies (to) and includes all of our kids, regardless of the lens that you use to look at them,” Behrend said.
At a forum that the Special Education PTO had sponsored, the questions for the night centered on special education, with some candidates sharing how they can relate to the struggles parents might face.
Ramirez told the crowd of around 20 people how “my “life and my outlook, in general, has been significantly impacted by having a developmentally disabled brother.”
“I’m deeply invested in the schools and a strong advocate of public education,” said Ramirez, who has four children in the system. “I think it’s a fundamental right for all of our students.”
Tuck-Ponder, a former mayor of Princeton Township, spoke of having a then-3-year-old son who couldn’t talk, something that had gone unnoticed until a pediatrician brought it to her attention.
“We understood him, we thought he understood us, but he was behind because he had a hearing loss,” she said. “And we didn’t even know it.”
She said her family had faced an array of questions to get help for her son — putting the family on the same journey other special education parents find themselves taking.
“And so we had to manage the medical part because there was a medical problem,” she said, “but we also had to manage the school part.”
Despite Princeton being a high-performing district, there was less talk by the candidates about ensuring academic rigor and keeping Princeton at its lofty perch and more about having “empathy” and wanting kids to turn out to be happy adults.
The candidates found time to weave in broader reflections about a district where students at Princeton High School report being overworked and stressed and where, for the second year in a row, a high school student killed himself. Former school board president Andrea Spalla, during the question-and-answer session from the audience, raised the “mental health crisis” at the high school and how, in her words, that crisis is being “pushed down” to the lower grades.
The district is looking to move back the starting time at the high school, and plans to go to block scheduling.
“But I think we, as a society, as parents, need to look at how we are handling this stress and what we are doing to contribute to it,” Behrend said. “We’re all part of it.”
Ludmer lamented how it can be “downright toxic for many students” in what she termed a “high-stakes testing culture.” She advocated having a “growth mindset,” in using the phrase coined by Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck, in her research.
“It means if you’re given a test, you don’t get an F on that test. The idea is the teacher points out what things you need to improve on, you give it back to the student, they do it until they learn the material,” she said. “So if the goal of education is to learn the material, I firmly believe that we need to bring more of a growth mindset.”
Tuck-Ponder said that as a candidate for school board, she has “advocated for a culture of high expectations” for students.
“And that doesn’t mean, to me at least, that every student should aspire to admittance to an Ivy League institution,” said Tuck-Ponder, who went to the University of Pennsylvania Law School. “It means that we should expect the best of what every student has to offer and create a culture and environment where they can be supported in that endeavor.”
Fields, a campus minister at Princeton University, said that in his work, he has seen college students with “anxiety and having depression and having to be medicated before they even open a text book.”
“So this is definitely a national phenomenon that we’re experiencing,” he said. “I think one of the things that we do need to do, we need to listen well to our students and hear what they’re telling us.”
“And I think that for students who are receiving special education and in a school system where the air that students are breathing is filled with anxiety, it’s a particularly painful combination,” Deutsch said.