Princeton School Board Candidate Profile: Jenny Ludmer

This is the last Q&A in a series about candidates for the Princeton Public Schools Board of Education. Six candidates are seeking the three seats available on the board for three-year terms. None of the incumbents whose terms end this year chose to run again. School board elections are non-partisan.

Jenny Ludmer

Name: Jenny Ludmer

Age: 45

Education: Graduate of public schools in Virginia; BS in Biology from James Madison University in Virginia; MS in Physiology from UCLA

Year you moved to Princeton: 2011

Favorite book you’ve read within the last year: “The Underground Railroad” by Colson Whitehead

Schools your children attend: Littlebrook Elementary and John Witherspoon Middle School

Why did you decide to run for school board:

After the national election, I turned my focus to the local politics impacting the schools that I’ve worked with for so long. In the process of attending board and committee meetings and studying the latest issues, it has become clear that the academic stress and racial bias issues facing our students are unacceptable. With three kids in the Princeton Public School (PPS) system, I’m committed to seeing the changes proposed by the administration get implemented and these problems alleviated.

Please list the top three challenges the Princeton Public Schools must address and describe why for each challenge:

1. Unnecessary academic stress and chaos at the high school:  The Challenge Success Survey results illuminated the high levels of stress and homework experienced by many of our high school students. Reporting an average of over 3 hours of homework a night and less than 7 hours of sleep, it is clear that many high schoolers are “doing school” and finding very little enjoyment in their work. The high school has proposed a number of changes which are slated to go into effect for 2018-19, which I applaud and am eager to see put into action. A later start time for high schoolers, longer breaks, and the shift towards block-scheduling are all designed to improve the well-being of students, but further assessment will be needed to ensure these actions are sufficient.

In addition, our high school must undergo a tremendous reorganization to ensure all students are truly getting a fair chance at success and meaning. Administrators must learn to effectively communicate with parents, to provide students access to teachers and counselors, and to support children holistically.

2.  The challenge of racism: In recent years, students have brought to light disturbing incidents of bias that we need to address. Furthermore, statistics show that our district disproportionately punishes students of color. These unfortunate trends need to be addressed by teaching racial literacy not only to our students, but also to our staff and teachers, while also ensuring that these attempts are meaningfully effective. In addition, when future incidents arise, we need to act swiftly to make these teachable moments for all of our children.

Finally, we must also address our hiring and teacher retention practices, our student advancement practices, and our curriculum to ensure that our schools truly reflect our community and its values.

3.  Careful growth and prudent stewardship: The district is undergoing a period of growth and I consider this a welcome opportunity to bring change to the district. However, any changes to the infrastructure must come with buy-in from the stakeholders in the community and must not be at the expense of the dated infrastructure we already have. The middle school and high school are already operating above capacity, and the impending affordable housing settlement promises even more students to come.

Now, the district must step up and lead by example. We need to be responsible stewards of our facilities and build and maintain energy-efficient buildings. It’s imperative that we advance and support sustainable practices in our schools to ensure our energy expenses are reduced and our science teachings have real world meaning. A measured approach and careful consideration of all options are both necessary to ensure that the public’s tax dollars are well-spent.

Why do you think you are qualified to serve on the board and what strengths do you have to address the problems you have listed above?

As a proven school and community leader, as well as the parent of three Princeton Public School students, I am eager to serve on Princeton’s Board of Education. In the six years that my children have been at Littlebrook, I have organized the annual science expo, championed the garden, coordinated the chess club, and led the Sustainable Jersey for Schools certification. At JW, I now manage communications for the JWMS PTO, and I also serve as a member of Princeton’s Complete Streets Committee.

Working with administrators, teachers, parents and the community on numerous projects, both large and small, has made me well aware of the many strengths of the district, but also its challenges. As a passionate community school advocate, born of a public school system, I am eager to see our schools grow and strengthen so that we truly achieve our strategic goals to make every child known, incorporate wellness, close the achievement gap, improve care and communication, as well as innovate and experiment along the way.

What do you see as the role of a school board member? Describe your responsibilities.

In New Jersey, school board members are responsible for adopting school policies, approving the curriculum, hiring and evaluating the superintendent, overseeing the school budget, representing the public during contract negotiations, and serving to connect the community with the school system.

As a former scientific analyst, I am ready and willing to learn all of the latest research concerning education, so I can better understand the issues facing our schools and perform these duties. I will be a board member who will not only show up for meetings, but also be prepared and ready to roll up my sleeves and go to work. I will be a team player, a consensus builder, and ensure that all children are treated equitably.  Finally, I commit to provide the time and energy necessary to consider all of the options for our schools and make thoughtful, evidence-based decisions for all of our children.

What are your concrete proposals for dealing with the school district’s overcrowding problems?

There is no doubt that Princeton is experiencing growth at the present time. In recent years, a number of new housing developments, including Avalon Bay, have been constructed, contributing to a recent 10 percent growth in students — now nearing 3800 — while several schools are at or have exceeded capacity. Furthermore, the impending affordable housing settlement will likely lead to additional enrollment.

Moving forward, we must carefully analyze all options for handling our this growth. At two acres, Monument Hall does not offer sufficient space for the district’s needs. And while conveniently-located, we now know that Westminster Choir College will likely be sold to a buyer that will keep this world-class gem in our neighborhood. Thus, at this stage, the most likely option is to restore or develop the 9-acre Valley Road property, which is currently owned by the district and located near the library and other community resources.

One option proposed by Superintendent Cochrane is that the Valley Road school become a Grade 5-6 school, which would free up space at the elementary and middle schools. At the same time, he has proposed that the high school will expand on its property to accommodate the growth at PHS. The district must move swiftly yet thoughtfully to address the student enrollment growth, while ensuring we select the most cost-effective option for the taxpayers.

Should the Princeton Public Schools continue its receiving relationship with Cranbury? Why or why not. Explain.

Since approximately 1991, Princeton Public Schools have maintained a sending-receiving relationship with the Cranbury School Board, whereby Cranbury sends about 300 grade 9-12 students to Princeton High School (PHS) each year in return for an approximately $5 million in tuition.

The most recent demographic report shows that the high school is currently exceeding capacity by about 60 students. The report further predicts that over the next ten years, enrollment at PHS will grow by an additional 200 students. And, as mentioned previously, once the terms of the affordable housing settlement are known, additional enrollment growth is to be expected.

Regardless, the current contract with Cranbury continues until 2020. As we approach that deadline and before we plan to expand PHS, it is important that we analyze their financial contributions to ensure that it both benefits our district and is fair to our taxpayers.

The town received voluntary payments in lieu of taxes from Princeton University and the Institute for Advanced Study. Should the Princeton Public Schools seek voluntary payments from non-profit  institutions in the community? Why or why not?

Both the Institute for Advanced Studies and Princeton University advertise the Princeton Public Schools to prospective scholars, faculty, and students (e.g., see this link). And our strong public school system likely helps these institutions attract world-class faculty. In order to relieve some of the burden from our taxpayer’s shoulders, we should definitely seek voluntary payments from these institutions.

Should the Princeton Public Schools continue the current lawsuits against the Princeton Charter School? Explain why or why not.

The lack of transparency in the charter school expansion process was troubling, and I, in particular, continue to be alarmed by the divisiveness it has caused in our community. I fully understand the community’s opposition to the charter expansion, as well as the initial response through litigation. However, while we wait for the court’s decision, we should begin to bring our divided community together.

The district has already taken one important step in this regard. Thanks to the hard work of the Student Achievement Committee, every parent of a student who leaves the Princeton Public Schools now receives an exit survey from their principal. This data will be aggregated to determine how we can strengthen our community schools, so that every parent feels welcomed at our schools and that we are addressing the needs of all of our children.

Furthermore, we need to establish a long-overdue “bipartisan” commission. With both charter and PPS representatives, this commission could open a dialogue that is missing between the two schools and seek solutions for all types of students. With further consideration and analysis, I believe that not only can the two schools establish a working relationship that will reduce the divisiveness in our community, but also strengthen PPS.

The school district talks a lot about promoting diversity. How do you see the issue and what does the school district need to do to promote change?

There are three things we can and should do to promote diversity in our schools. First, we need to analyze our hiring practices. A recent report from the district made clear that the diversity of our teachers does not reflect the diversity of our students. Thus, it is imperative that the district make sustained efforts to recruit and retain talented teachers of color. Recruitment efforts at historically-black colleges and universities are underway, and I support and urge expansion of these efforts.

Second, we need to assess our student advancement practices. Recently released statistics show that our district disproportionately punishes students of color, while anecdotal reports indicate that latino and black students are underrepresented in accelerated courses. It is clear that considerable work needs to be done to lift up our students of color, much of which begins in the elementary years.

Finally, we need to ensure all teachers undergo implicit bias and racial literacy training. Quite simply, we cannot begin to achieve our strategic goal of closing the achievement gap if we do not ensure every teacher is appropriately trained in this regard.

Anything else you would want to add?

I believe my analytical skills, work ethic and six years of demonstrated commitment to our schools will allow me to be an informed and effective board member. Please consider me, Jennifer A. “Jenny” Ludmer, when you vote on November 7. Last on the Ballot, but First for Princeton! Learn more about my campaign at LudmerForBOE.org or FB.me/LudmerForBOE.