Consultant: Princeton Public Schools enrollment expected to increase by about 12 percent over the next five years

The number of students being educated by the Princeton Public Schools is projected to increase by about 433 students by the 2027-28 school year, a consultant told the school board on Tuesday, Feb. 7.

Currently, 3,721 students attend the Princeton Public Schools, including on-site students in the district’s expanded preschool program.

The number of students in the district is projected to peak at 4,154 students by 2027-28, according to district consultant Michael Zuba, director of public master planning for the Connecticut-based architecture firm SLAM. Three projection models used by Zuba ranging from “low” to “medium” to “high” show the district potentially having 4,002 students, 4,154 students, and 4,303 students respectively for the 2027-38 academic year.

The school board is slated to discuss Zuba’s presentation and report at the next public board meeting at 7:30 p.m. on Feb. 21. A special meeting will also be held in March to discuss ways the district will be addressing growing enrollment.

A quick look back at previous district projections

Projected enrollment growth is only slightly lower than two previous analyses done by Zuba, with projected enrollment increases in the latest study being lower than the previous studies in 2020 and 2021.

The total number of students in the district for 2027-28 was projected to be 4,226 students in the 2021 study.

Enrollment was projected to be 4,273 students at the low end (and 4,544 students at the high end) in the 2020 study.

A 2017 study conducted by another firm, Sundance Associates of Cherry Hill, projected that by 2027, about 4,820 students would be enrolled in the district. At the time, former superintendent of school Steve Cochrane and the school board wanted to build a new middle school for grades 5-6, buy land for a new administration building, and do other renovations. School officials were eyeing the Westminster Choir College property at the time in the hope of expanding the district’s footprint by purchasing the campus.

Residents balked at the $129 million proposed price tag for the referendum, questioning the need to buy land for new school buildings. They also questioned the school board’s decision to continue the sending and receiving agreement with Cranbury given the projected growth at the high school. The referendum was then scaled down to $27 million after it became clear that voters would not support the bigger spending plan. In 2018, voters approved the smaller referendum for improvements at all six public schools and renovations to create more classroom space at the middle school and high school.

School Board President Dafna Kendal said that over the past three years, the school board has implemented steps to maximize the capacity of existing schools through schedule changes, facility upgrades, and additional classrooms at Princeton High School and Princeton Middle School. 

Details of the latest report

Over the last ten years, enrollment in the Princeton Public Schools increased by 324 students, or 9.5 percent, according to the report. The current enrollment of 3,721 students in grades pre-K through 12 is down from the pre-pandemic high of 3,855 students in the 2019-20 school year.

District officials said current and projected enrollment numbers reflect a continued expansion of the district’s pre-K program but do not include children who attend pre-K off-site at locations provided by community partners. The school district began expanding its preschool program in 2019, working with a variety of community partners including the Princeton YMCA, the Princeton Housing Authority, and the Princeton Community Family Learning Center, also known as the Cub School.

New housing developments

Several new housing projects totaling more than 1,100 units are slated to bring more students to the school district. Some of the units include Fair Share Housing round three affordable units. Anticipated fourth-round projects are not included. Cranbury’s third-round family projects are complete, with no anticipated fourth-round projects due to a surplus of units being built in the third round.

The latest demographic study projects that these new housing developments in Princeton will bring about 460 students to the school district.

The largest project will be Avalon Princeton Circle, a development off of Thanet Road that will consist of 221 apartments and townhouses. The Princeton Council approved a 30-year PILOT agreement with AvalonBay for the Thanet property back in 2021. Under that agreement, AvalonBay will be exempt from paying taxes for the property for 30 years. AvalonBay will instead pay the town an “annual service charge” or payment in lieu of taxes, with 95% of that money going to the municipality and 5% going to the county. The school district won’t see a penny of that money, even though the new development will bring more students into the district. AvalonBay will pay the municipality an annual service charge of 11% of annual gross revenue for the first ten years of the agreement.

Elementary school student distribution

All schools in the district experienced a significant enrollment decrease between 2019-20 and 2020-21 school year due to the pandemic. Only Johnson Park Elementary has seen its enrollment increase beyond pre-pandemic levels. The student population there has increased 19% since 2019-20. The other three elementary schools in the district have yet to return to pre-pandemic enrollment levels, with the greatest decline at Community Park Elementary School and more modest declines at Riverside Elementary and Littlebrook Elementary.

Current student populations at the district’s elementary schools

Community Park – 286 students (381 in 2019-20)
Johnson Park – 388 students (326 in 2019-20)
Littlebrook – 380 students (393 in 2019-20)
Riverside – 274 students (293 in 2019-20)

A breakdown of projections by school for 2027-28

The biggest increase in the student population is expected to take place at Princeton High School, which is expected to see an increase in enrollment of more than 200 students five years from now. Community Park is the only school where projections show a decline in students over the next five years.

Community Park – 242 students (down from 286 this year)
Johnson Park. 433 students (up from 388 this year)
Littlebrook – 466 students (up from 380 this year)
Riverside – 299 students (up from 274 this year)
Princeton Middle School – 887 students (up from 816 this year)
Princeton High School – 1,753 students (up from 1,529 this year)

During a question and answer period after the presentation on Tuesday, school board member Besty Baglio asked whether the projections take into account that some students will instead attend private, parochial, or charter schools instead of the Princeton Public Schools. Zuba said adjustments are made to factor in potential student migration both in and out of the district.

Kendal brought up the projected decline in the student population at Community Park and the growth at the other elementary schools, saying that she can assure parents that the elementary school numbers will not end up being true because of actions the school board plans to take. School board members are waiting for a recommendation from administrators about how to proceed at Community Park Elementary, she said. The recommendation will be made in March, and then district officials will notify the community of changes at the elementary schools.

“I want to be clear there’s not one magic bullet,” Kendal said when discussing the projections regarding rising enrollment in the district overall. “It’s going to be a combination of educational programming, perhaps minor redistricting of new developments, and building. Our buildings do need to continue to be maintained and perhaps enhanced…We will proceed thoughtfully and deliberately.”

During public comment after the presentation and board discussion, Johnson Park Elementary parent Jessica Viera noted that some elementary schools are overrun with students and others are not. “I’d love to see the board propose some element, or at least investigate redistricting, to ensure that the schools are equally balanced,” Viera said.