Dafna Kendal was chosen as the new president of the Princeton Board of Education this month, and Michelle Tuck Ponder was named vice president. Kendal is serving her second term on the school board.
Home town: Edison, New Jersey
The last book you read: The Splendid and the Vile
Other community activities: Board member of Princeton Mobile Food Pantry, an all-volunteer organization that has been feeding hungry people in Princeton and delivering food to their doorsteps during the pandemic.
What made you decide to serve on the board of education? I think most people, myself included, run for the board because they care about student outcomes want to make a difference. I have two children who both attend public schools in Princeton.
What are the biggest challenges the district faces: Addressing the aftermath of the pandemic is the biggest challenge the district faces. Every student was impacted by the pandemic, some more than others. We need to measure and understand where our students are, and what programs should be implemented. This includes academics and social and emotional learning. I don’t see anything else being a bigger challenge for the district than to first understand where students are, how they were affected by the pandemic, and how the district will be able to address all that was lost while providing students with the support they need. Of course, resources will be a challenge. Our teachers and staff have borne the brunt of the shift in learning over the past two years. We have to ensure that our teachers and staff have what they need, whether it is professional development or additional staff so that we don’t experience the exodus of teachers from education, as is occurring around the country.
What are your top priorities as school board president this year?: I would like to focus on the students and really get a good understanding of where they are, academically and emotionally, and support the administration in addressing the issues. We also have to focus on our staff. These past few years have been draining for our staff, and we want to support them so that they don’t burnout. With all the new Covid protocols that have been implemented in the district over the past two years, Crisis-Go, contact tracing, testing, etc., we have only recently hired one new staff member who will oversee safety and security holistically for the district. This amount of work isn’t sustainable, Covid-19 will remain an issue, and we have to determine how we will manage this over the next few years.
Have you been fielding a lot of questions about the bond referendum and if so, what is the most common question people have about it? The most common question we get is why didn’t we do this work sooner? Much of the money we are seeking through this referendum ($17.5 million total) is to replace roofing on all six school buildings. We have patched and repaired the roofs for as long as possible to delay replacement. We are past repairing much of the roofing at this point, so that’s why we are asking voters for approval. If the referendum is approved, the state of New Jersey will pay up to 34% of the total principal and interest. If the referendum is not approved, we won’t get any support from the state, but the roofs will still need to be repaired.
You’ve served through two administrations. What do you see as the biggest strengths of the new superintendent for the district? Dr. Kelley’s biggest strength is that she focuses on the students above all else. Before Dr. Kelley even joined our district, she began to reach out to find student voices, especially those that are not typically heard. The board hired Dr. Kelley because we believe that she is the person to solve many of the long-existing problems such as closing the opportunity gaps, and making sure all students have equitable access to curricular and co-curricular classes and teams.
Anything else you would want to add? I would like to thank the community, especially Princeton Public Schools students and their families, for their understanding and resilience over the past two years as we worked through the pandemic to balance physical health and safety needs with the academic needs of students. We really are all in this together, and the board truly appreciates the way the community has supported the district.