Q&A with Lawrence Patton, Head of School at Princeton Charter School

What is the history of Princeton Charter School and where is it located?  

Princeton Charter School (PCS) opened in September 1997. We were founded by Princeton parents who wanted a “rigorous curricula, with well-defined grade-by-grade outcomes in line with state, national, and international standards, focusing on cumulative acquisition of knowledge and skills in academic areas.” After trying to work through the regular public school channels (including serving on the Princeton Regional School Board), they saw an opportunity to found a charter school.  

We remain an independent charter school, i.e. we are not part of a larger network. We’re located on Bunn Drive, just beyond Princeton Shopping Center.

What grades does Princeton Charter School serve and describe some key features of the curriculum.  

PCS is a small K-eight school. We emphasize core academic skills. English and math sections have low student-teacher ratios: In grades three to five, the ratio is one teacher to 12 students in English and math. In grades six to eight, we have a 1:16 ratio in English classes and maintain the 1:12 ratio in math. We devote an hour a day to both math and English and supplement that time with reading periods and study halls so that students have time to read for pleasure and time to meet with teachers during the school day to ask questions and engage with the material at school. World language classes are introduced in kindergarten, and they meet five days a week starting in first grade. We start teacher subject area specialization for all subjects, i.e. mathematics is taught by a teacher who teaches only math, etc., in third grade with two exceptions: science and world language teacher specialization begins in kindergarten.

Our Curriculum Committee process engages faculty, staff, parents, and outside experts to review the curricula in every discipline. Those committees are a testament to how passionate we are about developing, sustaining, and constantly improving our curriculum. Finally, we also believe in the importance of play and unstructured time, and we have three recess periods every day for all of our students — including our middle school students.

As a result, we have seen stellar performance on standardized testing as defined by total pass rate, student growth percentiles, and the percentage of students scoring in the highest categories on PARCC, NJASK, and on national world language exams.

Please comment on the anticipated impact of the weighted lottery admissions program.  

When PCS was founded, it had three goals. The second goal was a commitment to equity: “Princeton Charter School will seek a diverse student body and offer those students both excellence and equity in education. The school’s strong academic program will reduce achievement gaps by eliminating an important cause — the insufficient mastery of basic knowledge and skills required for further academic achievement.” A recent change in the state law allowed for weights in the lottery for “economically disadvantaged” students. We saw this as an opportunity to build on a fundamental part of our mission. Individuals who qualified had their names entered twice into our random lottery. We saw immediate results. This year, 12 percent of the students drawn in the lottery qualified as economically disadvantaged. The majority of those students will be entering in the lower grades, K and one, as a direct result of the expansion. Last year, the rate of free and reduced lunch students was roughly 1.5 percent. The sibling preference (a child drawn in the lottery moves his/her sibling into the school if a space is available) played a significant part in increasing the number of economically disadvantaged students as well.

 What makes the Charter School a unique option for Princeton parents and families?  

PCS offers parents a small, close-knit, K-eight public school choice in Princeton. In addition to a strong curriculum, we believe that the K-eight model is a major advantage for many students — especially in terms of their social and emotional learning. We think that it is important for students “to be known and to feel known” — especially as they make the transition from elementary school to middle school. We have approximately 50 students per grade — including in middle school. Connections are critical — within the school, our middle school students have joint activities with their counterparts in younger grades on a regular basis and with their former teachers. In addition, we offer two annual, face-to-face, parent-teacher conferences with every teacher in every grade. Phone calls, emails, and additional conferences ensure that no one gets lost. We believe in long-term relationships — I can’t emphasize enough that we are a family here.

Describe Princeton Charter School’s plans for the future.

We will continue to build our student support and special education program. We are adding staff for special education, ESL, and early reading support. The expansion has also allowed us to implement some new courses. We are excited to be able to offer computer programming for all students in grades seven and eight. We feel this is an important  subject area that we have wanted to implement for a while. And we will begin offering Spanish starting in kindergarten.  We will also be constructing some additional spaces — classrooms and small instructional rooms for our special education and support services — for our additional students.

We will continue in our efforts to engage all communities in Princeton in order to attract students to enter into our enrollment lottery. We would like to partner with Princeton organizations through service and volunteerism in support of educational activities, sustainability initiatives, and community programs. We teach our students that they personally have the power to make changes in the world and that they also have a responsibility to help others in the broader community.