Influx at elementary schools creates dilemma for school board

According to Superintendent Steve Cochrane, student enrollment for the upcoming school year is busting at the seams for Princeton’s public elementary schools. With kindergarten registration records reaching an all-time high, especially at Riverside, Cochrane has had to shift sections – i.e., the number of classes per grade – and so class sizes are climbing to a less than ideal capacity.

“Maintaining smaller class sizes at the elementary level is absolutely crucial to our mission,” Board President Andrea Spalla said.

“We’ve been surprised to see the statistics at an elementary level. Community Park had around 50 registered kindergartners last year and it’s jumped now to about 78,” Cochrane said. “It’s hard to tell now whether this is an anomaly or if it is going to be a trend.”

Community Park is facing the most serious adjustment with new students, since two developments are near completion within its zoning region. Avalon Bay, according to Cochrane, has produced 30 incoming youngsters to CP, most of whom are in grades kindergarten and one. At this point, only 10 percent of the apartment building’s 280 units have been rented.

The district demographer projected AvalonBay to generate approximately 135 students districtwide. However, AvalonBay’s director said this number was uncharacteristically high for buildings similar to this one, such as in the neighboring district of West Windsor.

The most pressing dilemma at CP is where to put the students when they trickle in throughout the school year. Kindergarten now has four sections with about 17 to 20 seats in each. The first grade is consistent with the other grades with three sections but is currently disproportionate because of the successful pilot program, Dual Language Immersion. At CP, two of the first-grade classes are taught in both English and Spanish – these have 19 students enrolled in each – and the other class is for those not participating; this class is teeming at 28.

“I am looking to reach out to the parents to see if they would like their children to enroll in Dual Language. Many of those newly enrolled are not aware the program exists,” Cochrane said. “I expect there to be a positive response.”

Still, the unpredictable influx of students to come from AvalonBay, as well as from the Princeton University graduate housing development on Route 206, Merwick-Stanworth, has created quite the dilemma.

“One option is to zone Merwick-Stanworth in the Johnson Park school district,” Cochrane said.

Cochrane affirmed that while student numbers increase, additional buses will not be needed in the Witherspoon area.

Riverside Elementary School also experienced a rise in kindergarten enrollment. Cochrane added a section to that grade to make classes of 15 to 16 students, which caused the third grade’s two sections to have about 25 students in each.

“We will need to be making decisions regarding zoning and making an additional third-grade section at Riverside,” Cochrane said. “I recommend we move forward with that so we can begin interviewing process.”

About Erica Chayes Wida

Erica Chayes Wida is a writer, mom, and complete zealot when it comes to poetry, paella and globe collections. After graduating with a degree in Anthropology from UCLA, Erica moved to Italy where the seasons and old architecture inspired her journey back to the East Coast. Since then, she and her husband have created a nest egg locally and, over time, developed a rather grand love affair with the town of Princeton. Erica is senior editor at The Princeton Sun and enjoys fulfilling her Princeton affections on a daily basis. | View all posts by Erica Chayes Wida