As almost everyone is aware, an incident occurred recently that captured not only the attention of the press but, more importantly, the conscience of our community.
On a recent weekend, several of our young people participated in a drinking game with anti-Semitic implications. A picture was posted, a blog was written, and the story went viral. The most significant outcome, however, has not been the coverage abroad but the difficult yet meaningful discussions here at home – discussions about decision-making, about underage drinking, about the use and misuse of social media, and certainly about anti-Semitism and other forms of hurtful discrimination based on religion, race, culture, or sexual orientation. I am grateful to the families who have used this as an opportunity to reflect with their children. I am grateful to our teachers who have had conversations about the various issues with their students. And I am grateful to the many young people in this community who continue to consider how this incident may positively impact the decisions they will make in the future.
This incident has called for thoughtful action on the part of our entire community - and our community has responded. We are working with The Jewish Center of Princeton to host an event at the high school on May 4 for Holocaust Remembrance Day. We are partnering with Corner House to offer a program on May 18th focused on underage drinking and parent host liability. We are also in conversation with the Princeton Public Library to develop a forum on the power and potential problems associated with the use and misuse of social media.
We are looking at a timely response to this situation but also at a timeless one. We want to ensure that the issues raised by this event are ones we talk about more immediately with students but also ones about which we deepen students' understanding in the years to come. As educators, we are looking at those points in our curriculum where we can augment students’ understanding of the Holocaust and of other acts of genocide. We are considering ways to underscore students’ thoughtful and ethical use of social media. And we are continuing to explore the ways we can work with parents and community partners to help students make healthy and legal choices about drugs and alcohol.
As I shared in a recent message to the families at Princeton High School, we are defined not by the difficulties we encounter in our lives but by how we face them. As we continue to face this difficulty, I know that we will do so in the spirit of all that is right with our community – we will do so with honesty and integrity, with respect for different points of view, and with compassion for all of the people affected both within and beyond our town.
I hope we do so as well with a vision of what we can become as a school district and as a community – leaders in the areas of health and wellness, ethical decision making, and respect and affirmation for all races, religions, and cultures.
This month, school districts across New Jersey are once again administering PARCC, the state-mandated assessment designed to measure the progress of students in achieving the Common Core standards in language arts and mathematics. And, once again, there will be vigorous debate about the potential merits and misuses of this new, computer-based test.
The Princeton Public Schools have proven to be a safe space for healthy debates on topics such as standardized tests and we want to continue to honor that openness. We also, however, want to shift the overall conversation in education from one focusing on standardization to one focusing on innovation. And to shift the conversation, we must shift the paradigm.
Our district’s focus on wellness and balance, our stated mission to prepare young people not simply to get into a competitive college but to lead lives of “joy and purpose,” has been generally met with overwhelming support by our community. Nevertheless, I inevitably get the question: “How can we change the competitive pressure our students feel when the college admissions process continues to apply it?
Schools are places of hope. They hold the hopes we have for our children. They hold the hopes our children have for themselves. They hold the hopes we, as a community, have for the future.
As we celebrate the start of a new year, I am delighted to share a few of my hopes for our schools in 2016.
Wellness and Balance was the first of the five goals identified last Spring by our Strategic Planning Steering Committee. At a time when there is national concern about historically high levels of stress and competition among high school students, Wellness and Balance is about redefining success and reigniting the joy of learning. It is a goal about reducing anxiety and, at the same time, increasing achievement. It is a goal about slowing our students down so they can actually learn better, play better, feel better.
Recently, the Wellness section of the New York Times, carried an interview with Dawn Scott, the fitness coach for the US Women’s National Soccer Team. The women’s team not only won the World Cup in July but went on to dominate a host of other international competitions throughout the summer. Their ascendance on the world stage begged the question: How did they get so fit?
I was struck by the answer Ms. Scott gave when asked to name the single greatest change she brought to the fitness of the team: “Recovery,” she said.
She then went on to explain: “The American team was already famous for its conditioning. The women had always done a lot of running. But when I came in, they weren’t devoting the same resources to recovery, which I thought was a problem. To me, recovery is such a massive aspect of overall fitness. It’s what prepares you for the next session or game. If you don’t recover, you start the next session tired and that sets you up for poor performance or injury.”
When I read that quote, I thought of our kids. They are amazing students often functioning at a very high level, but they describe themselves as always running. Class to class, activity to activity, event to event, assignment to assignment. How much better might they perform, if we built in time for recovery?
To be sure, the culture of running is in the ethos here. It comes from our community, from the colleges, from the kids themselves. But what can we do as a school system to change the culture? What can we do to inspire our kids to want to run incredibly hard, but also to recognize the need to recover? What can we do to help them slow down enough to prevent injury and, at the same time, optimize their performance physically, artistically, intellectually?
Our district’s focus this year on Wellness is designed to do just that. We have already implemented “Homework Free” periods in our calendar with the intent of providing our students with time throughout the year when they can mentally step away from focusing on homework, projects, and studying for tests. Our hope is that during these “recovery” times students will focus instead on reading for pleasure, spending time with family and friends, enjoying activities outside, and attending concerts, plays and athletic events.
Just as periods of physical recovery allow hard working athletes to bring their performance to an even higher level, so too, does mental recovery allow our students to process what they’ve learned, recharge their creative batteries and raise the level of their academic performance.
The simple truth is that our students learn more, work harder and perform better when they are relaxed, well-rested and personally engaged in their academic experience. Our goal in the Princeton Public Schools is to do all we can to promote those conditions.
Over the course of the next few months, our Action Team on Wellness and Balance will be working to design a blueprint of long-range measures that will build into our culture the recovery, the resiliency, and the relationships that will prepare them to fulfill our mission and to truly lead lives of joy and purpose.
The Princeton Public Schools began the 2015-16 school year not only with new contracts, new excitement, and new students, but with a bold new strategic plan that establishes a clear vision and direction for the future.
The plan begins with a Mission Statement -- a single sentence that represents the core values of our community and our hopes for the students we serve.
“The mission of the Princeton Public Schools is to prepare all students to lead lives of joy and purpose as knowledgeable, creative, and compassionate citizens of a global society.”
Reflect for a moment on the words in that statement that may resonate with you.
ALL students. Every one.
JOY and PURPOSE. Rare and refreshing words in a school mission statement. Nowhere does the mission statement reference getting into an Ivy League college or making a lot of money. A different, larger definition of success is at work here. The goal is for our students to experience joy and meaning in their lives regardless of what pathway they may take -- and to experience it in the present, not at the end of some educational or economic rainbow.
Do we want our students to have extensive and in-depth content knowledge? Absolutely. We also want them to have creativity and compassion. All three are essential -- although not all three can be easily measured.
And finally, in the mission statement, we are explicit about our students becoming citizens of the world -- with all the cultural, linguistic, political and technological understanding that comes with that responsibility.
This mission statement, this single sentence, drives the work that we do and the direction we have established as a district.
So what is the work ahead of us in the next three to five years? We have identified the following five goals for which we are currently developing detailed action plans: