Princeton Charter School Celebrates 25 Years of Educating Local Students – Town Topics

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HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Princeton Charter School recently celebrated its 25th anniversary. Its charter was approved by the New Jersey Department of Education on January 15, 1997, and since then it has grown from a gathering of 72 fourth, fifth, and sixth graders in the basement of the Nassau Presbyterian Church to a thriving K-8 school with 424 students on a seven-acre Bunn Drive campus. (Courtesy of Princeton Charter School)

By Donald Gilpin

The New Jersey Department of Education approved the charter for the Princeton Charter School (PCS) on January 15, 1997, and nine months later the school welcomed its first 72 students — fourth, fifth, and sixth graders only — in the basement of the Nassau Presbyterian Church.

With a vision of offering Princeton families a choice in public education with a particular focus on high academic standards and early immersive foreign language instruction, the school expanded over the years to include kindergarten to eighth grade and now, 25 years later, has 424 students. Since the first graduating class in 2000, more than 900 students have graduated from PCS, with the vast majority continuing their studies at Princeton High School (PHS).

“It is such a special, small community, and every day I am amazed by our talented, caring, and dedicated staff,” wrote PCS Head of School Lawrence Patton, who has been at the helm over the past 14 years. “Twenty-five years after the founding of the school, it remains my priority to bring smart, skilled, and experienced staff to work with our students and families. The partnership between the parents and the school has been woven into the fabric of Charter since the founding 25 years ago, and because of our small size and nine-year, K-8 structure, it continues to be a big part of who we are today.”

In a speech at last Friday’s anniversary celebration, PCS French teacher Martha Toma, one of the two teachers, along with English teacher Libby Kelley, who have been at PCS since the start, recalled some memories of the early days.

In its first year, the school moved to its current Bunn Drive campus, where there were only three classrooms. “But no one complained,” said Toma. “Everyone embraced the new adventure that was Charter. From the outset ours was a different kind of school. We were all pioneers in uncharted territory; we invented school supplies, we picked up apples from the school’s apple tree and made a pie, we had gym class at the skating rink, and we had school musicals in the Charter room [lunch room], transformed into a recital hall.”

Toma compared PCS to the apple pies they made. “Everything at Charter was made from scratch, with excellent ingredients, patience, and dedication,” she said.

Erin Redmond, who was one of the initial group of 72 students in 1997, is now the PCS school nurse. She recalled, “Unlike most schools, we did not have a gym, so for P.E. we went skiing, ice skating, swimming, and created memories that I will never forget. Although we did not have a gym, we were given even more opportunity to have new experiences and participate in different activities to promote learning, growth, health, and physical activity.”

She added, “I received such a great education here and know that the education I received here helped to guide me onto a path of success throughout high school and college.”

Admission to PCS is by a random lottery, limited to Princeton residents. Since 2020 the school has offered a weighted lottery for Princeton residents of limited financial means. Each year the school has a long waiting list of applicants, with 90 applying for just 38 spots in last year’s kindergarten class.

The campus now comprises six buildings: kindergarten through third grade; fourth and fifth grades; sixth through eighth; a cafeteria; a campus center with theater, gym, art studio, and music classroom; and an administration building.

PCS has also been the center of local controversy, most notably at its inception and again in 2017 and 2018, when it moved to expand its student body by 76 students. Princeton Public School (PPS) officials and others argued that increased PCS enrollment, requiring additional funds from PPS, would have severe effects on the district. The State Department of Education approved the PCS application, however, and the relationship between PPS and PCS seems to have been resolved on a positive footing.

“There’s no ‘us’ and ‘them,’” said Patton, pointing out that 42 out of 50 recent PCS graduates went on to PHS. “It’s ‘us’ and ‘us.’” He noted regular, positive, productive communication between PCS leaders and the PPS Board of Education over the past few years. “I’m very optimistic about our ongoing relationship with the district,” he added.

Reflecting on the 25-year milestone, Patton noted that PCS continues to be influenced by the spirit that inspired the founders. “That’s been a big accomplishment,” he said, “maintaining the urgency of the founders, that sense of importance in what we’re doing, to keep that alive in our staff and families 25 years later. We’ve been able to keep that in our new generation of teachers. They’ve internalized that sense of mission and I think that’s critical.”

Toma described PCS, which has been her since its inception 25 years ago, as “a public school that gives our community a choice, a school that blends a rigorous curriculum and a strong faculty to implement it, with high expectations and kindness, individual attention to students, and a touch of quirkiness. There is no place like Charter.”