The school board for the Princeton Public Schools voted 9-0 Thursday evening to approve Cecilia Birge as the new principal at Princeton High School.
School board member Michele Tuck Ponder was absent for the vote. About 20 members of the public attended the special Zoom meeting but did not comment during the public comment period.
“I’m thrilled to welcome Cecilia Birge as the principal of Princeton High School. We know this past spring was an especially difficult time for our district, especially PHS,” School Board President Dafna Kendal said, thanking all the staff members who kept the focus on learning.
“We’re turning the page and we’re looking with excitement to the future,” Kendal said. “Cecilia is well qualified for the position. She has been on staff at PHS for almost 10 years as a special education math teacher and assistant principal. She has a master’s degree from Columbia University in education and is working towards her doctorate in education at Rutgers. She lives in our community in the Witherspoon Jackson neighborhood and she has four children who have or are attending PPS, and she’s an active volunteer in our community. She is a kind and compassionate person who shows who she is through her actions. Princeton High School is already one of the best public high schools in the state, and I know with her focus and belief that all students can be successful, things will only get better with Cecilia Birge at the helm.”
Birge replaces Frank Chmiel, who was put on paid leave in March. The board declined to renew his contract. An interim principal has been serving at the high school since he was put on paid leave.
Birge first worked at Princeton High School in 2012 and then returned in 2015 after working at Dwight Morrow High School in Englewood from 2013 to 2015. She then returned to Princeton High School and was promoted to assistant principal in 2020. In addition to her teaching activities, Birge has also served as the head coach for the Princeton High School speech and debate team and has been an assistant coach of the high school volleyball team and the coach of the girls’ junior varsity volleyball team. She has also been a community liaison with the Chinese-American community and has worked with high school guidance counselors to bridge cultural gaps and promote a continuing dialog on race relations. She has also helped community organizations identify and support families suffering from financial and other hardships.
“I’m really excited about diving into the new school year with renewed energy and focus,” Birge said during the Zoom meeting Thursday. “I think that this appointment also recognizes the exceptional contributions of our dedicated teachers and staff…They are truly the frontline champions in our school and have consistently risen to every challenge. With their support, I have no doubt that we’ll have a stronger new school year ahead of us.”
Birge said in the coming weeks, she will engage with educators, students, and community stakeholders. “It’s my hope that together we will build upon our existing achievements and create an inclusive environment where every student feels a sense of belonging at PHS,” she said.
Interim Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources Rebecca Gold said the principal’s job was posted on July 10 for three weeks. A total of 25 candidates applied for the job, and there were two internal candidates.
A search committee of 13 people included two principals, three supervisors, an assistant superintendent, the director of student services, two teachers, the senior bookkeeper at the high school, and three parents. There were also three observers, including the superintendent of schools and two school board members, and Gold was the “hostess” or manager of the screening process.
There were three screening rounds for candidates, Gold said. The first round was a screening of application paperwork and credentials. Eight people were then selected for 10-minute interviews. After that, five finalists were selected and invited to one-hour interviews. The two internal candidates were automatically sent to the finalist round.
Gold said candidates were asked to talk about what their first 100 days at Princeton High School would look like, and what their vision and goals would be. Candidates were each asked 10 questions. The questions came from a community survey and covered attributes people wanted in a principal including trustworthiness, accountability, and collaboration. There were also questions about rigorous academic standards, intellectual integrity, interpreting data, and experience with special education and IEPs.
Leaders of the high school’s three employee unions spoke in support of Birge.
“It is a pleasure to see Cecilia come up through the educational ranks at the high school,” said teachers’ union leader Renee Szporn. “As someone who has worked with Cecilia as a teacher, and as an assistant principal, I know she has what it takes to get the job done.”