Parents in Princeton give new after-school provider a failing grade

Some parents in Princeton are calling on officials to replace the district’s new before and after-school care provider after a rough first few weeks of the new school year.

The district began using a national for-profit company, Right At School, this month. Right At School is based in Evanston, Ill., and was one of the after-school providers in Princeton Superintendent Carol Kelley’s school district in Oak Park, Ill. when she was there.

Parents have wondered why the school district shifted from using a community-based after-school provider to a for-profit national provider. Previously, the Princeton YMCA ran the afterschool program. In 2022, the Princeton YMCA merged with the Greater Somerset County YMCA. Four organizations applied to manage the afterschool program this year, including the YWCA Princeton.

A committee comprised of the superintendent, business administrator, and four elementary school principals rated each applicant and ranked Right At School as the top choice for the district. The cost of the Right At School after-school program is $320 per month for five days a week. Before-school care is an additional fee.

Parents at Riverside Elementary School submitted a petition on Sept. 15 that listed their concerns about the Right At School aftercare program and said they had been made aware of similar issues at the three other elementary schools in the district. Parents then followed up with a letter the following week. Parents said in their follow-up letter that they received responses from the superintendent and representatives from Right At School presenting a reasonable and clear plan of action to address concerns, but then an incident involving children at Riverside and one of the aftercare staff members raised serious concerns about the vetting process for new staff members. Parents told district officials the incident led them to lose complete confidence in Right After School. The parents urged the school district to terminate the contract with Right After School and seek another qualified aftercare program service immediately.

Parents said that the staffing of the program is too small, is constantly changing, and is unprofessional.

One staff member at Riverside Elementary allegedly told two girls in the program to behave or the staff member would lose his job “and go back to jail.” He then told the child not to tell anyone about the conversation. The same staff member also allegedly called a child “retarded.”

Fourth and fifth graders were asked to take responsibility for younger children’s bathroom visits when only one staff member was present in the program, according to parents. Parents also said due to the lack of a proper sign-out process, two children were incorrectly released to the wrong parent. Parents said staff did not intervene when there were conflicts among younger children, that any discipline was heavy-handed, that there were too few staff members, and that the program did not implement promised activities and homework time. Staff members also don’t seem to care to get to know children or their names, parents said. CPR and first aid training for afterschool staff was still pending. Children mostly did not have access to their school playgrounds in the afterschool program, according to parents. Due to inadequate staffing at Riverside, children were mostly confined to a cafeteria and were told to keep quiet, parents said.

“At the most basic level, it is not clear that the legally mandated ratio of staff to children – a maximum of 15 children to 1 staff member – is being met, and we have strong reason to believe that it is not,” parents wrote .”This is unacceptable.”

Parents called on district officials to bar the Right At School staff member from the school who told the students he would be sent back to prison. They also called on the school district to provide a temporary childcare solution with supervision by trained school district employees until a new provider is in place. “We urge you to take immediate action,” parents wrote.

“Despite noble promises of broader access to care, enhanced flexibility, and further enrichment for our children, it appears that RAS came completely unprepared and understaffed and unable to deliver on these as advertised,” parents wrote. “Some staff members lacked even basic training in First Aid.”

Sept. 20 Zoom meeting with parents

Representatives from Right At School and school district officials met with elementary school parents via Zoom on Wednesday evening, Sept. 20. Parents said it was unclear how many people attended the meeting because the attendee list was not displayed on the Zoom call.

District Business Administrator Matt Bouldin moderated the call. The superintendent of schools was on the call but via phone. She apologized for not being on the call via video and told parents on the call that she was in Massachusetts driving to catch a ferry to go to a retreat.

Andrew Cohen, the regional vice president of the Northeast for Right At School, who is a Mercer County resident, told parents the company is fully committed to getting things right with the district.

Cohen told parents his company follows the New Jersey licensing background check process. The Right At School employee at Riverside who told two girls he would go back to prison had a child abuse clearance that came back clear, but the criminal history results had not been returned yet. New Jersey licensing rules provide a two-week window for this person to be a provisional employee. Cohen told parents the company is implementing an additional background check to make sure no one works in the program until that background check is done. The employee in question from Riverside no longer works for the program.

He said the company is working to ensure that the program is staffed at the proper ratio of 1 staff member for 15 children. The program will have an extra staff person at each location beyond the minimum once it is fully staffed. He said that Right At School employees will be working in some programs this week until the program is fully staffed with local employees.

Cohen said early on in the school year, Right At School does not run its standard program at times because staff are focused on getting to know the district and the children. He said the curriculum normally wouldn’t be in effect until month two in most districts, not just Princeton. Right At School will be providing First Aid training to staff next Monday, Cohen said.

During the parent question period, some parents said the relationship with the new company is broken and can’t be repaired.

Parents said many children report not being talked to in a nice way by staff members from the Right At School program. One parent asked about the pay for staff members given the fact that Right At School is a for-profit company. Cohen said the company typically pays above market, patching or exceeding salaries of other providers. He said typically afterschool educators are paid $16 to $19 per hour, and managers are paid $20 to $25 per hour.

One parent questioned Right At School’s vetting process for employees, citing stories parents found via Google. In 2021, Right At School was cited for several violations at its program in Cedar Grove, N.J., including not ensuring that background checks are completed as required for all staff within two weeks of hire. Then in 2022, an inappropriate incident allegedly took place between an employee of the Right At School program in Cedar Grove and a student at an elementary school and police investigated the incident. Cedar Grove has since changed its afterschool service providers.

Right At School was also a party to a claim related to the alleged inappropriate behavior of a former employee involving a student in Cook County, Ill., according to a lawsuit that was filed in 2019. It is unclear whether the lawsuit was related to a November 2018 incident at an afterschool program that was run by Right At School at an elementary school in Chicago where a 12-year-old girl was allegedly sexually abused several times by an after-school program worker. Parents also asked whether the school district properly vetted the company and did an online search to read stories and employee reviews about the company.

A representative from Right At School said the company follows licensing regulations and is not afraid to make changes when they need to be made. The company realized licensing regulations are not enough, the company is learning from the experience and is making changes to make sure people who work for the program are vetted.

The parent asked why a stricter background check was not put in place after that incident in Cedar Grove. A representative from Right At School said she was not at liberty to talk about other instances. The representative said the company will do its own background check for Princeton employees. The representative also told parents the first few weeks of the program involve matchmaking and getting to know “the kiddos.”

One parent said she paid for before-care and both times she showed up with her kids, there were no Right At School staff members at the school and the administrators at the elementary school had to watch her kids. Cohen said the company is planning on having the staff at the school. He said the before-care numbers are low across the board and there will be an update by the end of the week about the program.

The district is arranging for some school district employees to be on-site at the Right At School programs but this could take two weeks to implement. Meanwhile, at Riverside, the principal volunteered to be on-site at the after-school program to monitor it at his school.

A parent from Littlebrook said he witnessed after-school staff yell at students several times, and his own son said the staff at the Littlebrook program are mean. “It’s the wrong fit,” the parent said.

One parent said parents have lost confidence in Right At School, the school board, and the district at this point. “This relationship needs to end, and we need to figure out how to move forward,” the parent said. A parent at Johnson Park Elementary said she has already pulled her children from the program. “I don’t trust this organization to take care of my children,” the parent said. “There is a group of nine families at JP right now, we’re trying to figure out if we should do a pod. It’s so bad I’m actually thinking it’s better for my children to come home on a bus to an empty house and to be alone in our house than to be in this environment.”