This is Why A Rich Town Like Princeton Needs a Charter School

(This is a guest post by Princeton Resident Liz Winslow)

The following are remarks I’ve prepared for a Princeton Board of Education budget meeting this evening, but might not get to deliver, being pressed for time. But I want people to know our story. My son’s story. In case I never got a shot at the podium during public comment.

I’m Liz Winslow, and my disabled sons are Tristan Schartman, age 10, and Aaron Schartman, age 4. Many people in this room know me — or of me — as a strong supporter of Princeton Charter School (PCS). That doesn’t mean I’m anti-Princeton Public Schools (PPS); in fact, Aaron is in the handicapped pre-K at Riverside Elementary School and is doing wonderfully with Lynn Spirko and her staff. However, not being anti-PPS is not mutually exclusive with being pro what works for my kids, and PPS did not work Tristan. It’s hard to tell a multi-year journey in a few sentences, but in the three years Tristan was at Littlebrook, teachers consistently sent him, starting at age 5, to the principal’s office several times a week as a “discipline” problem. During this time he exhibited echolalia, lack of eye contact, grunting, tics, and behavioral challenges. By the end of first grade, Tristan, who at this point was also weakening physically, had zero self-concept, as he was apparently regarded as “the bad kid.” By the end of second grade, his teacher told us he’d need a full time para to continue in a mainstream class, a process we had no idea how to even begin (to be fair, this particular teacher tried to work very collaboratively with us in second grade). And that is when we made the decision that if he didn’t get in at Charter, we’d have to move.

Think about this. Do you know what it’s like to have a little five year old boy, bullied, at one time sent home from afterschool needing stitches in his face, think he’s “the bad kid?” Or picking him up at age six, and seeing four kids holding him down, stealing his shoes, while playground aides looked at the sky? He was bullied. He had no friends. He lacked the capacity to function in school, and we were told simply that we needed to do something about that. Can you imagine what this did to him, and to our family?

Well right after getting into Princeton Charter, we then took this “bad kid” to a renowned psychiatrist, a great psychologist, and a MacArthur fellow in neuropsych when he was age 8. The above-mentioned collaborative second grade teacher kindly filled out extensive forms for the neuropsych. All three said, “autism — and look at his symptoms — how could the school have missed this?” Now, is there plenty of blame to go around, for everyone from his preschool to the original psychiatrist we took him to at age five, to us missing signs that now we understand? Sure. But missing autism, and treating an autistic child punitively for his oddities as a discipline problem? That’s not just a pretty big miss, as one teacher has since said to me, on the part of a school. That’s outright failure. FAILURE. By what is supposed to be one of the best districts in the nation. His teachers weren’t bad people, and I don’t think they didn’t care. But their training clearly was inadequate, and that is an administration-level problem.

During Tristan’s first month at PCS, he didn’t want to interact with teachers, as he’d gotten so used to being punished. But after a few weeks, when he was welcomed as he was — and with the right therapies both in and out of school — he bloomed. PCS has embraced working with our son, and has notified us promptly and candidly when they’ve seen additional issues. The bullying is over; PCS went out of its way to foster friendships between him and other children. My son just had his first real birthday party attended by several kids that wasn’t a weak attempt to invite the whole class, or just the sons of my own friends. I cannot tell you what that means to him, and us. And that is because of PCS. And despite PPS.

It is very much worth noting that 80% of the budget increase has nothing whatsoever to do with the Charter School. But that falls on deaf ears to those who’ve never had an experience like ours at PPS. We know kids at PCS who are there for a number of reasons — including PPS’s flouting every day of New Jersey state law to provide a gifted and talented program. When 20% of all kindergartners succeed or try to vote with their feet for PCS — and that’s to say nothing of the kids who go to private school — a lot of introspection and reflection is in order at PPS to find out what is driving a large minority of Princeton’s kids to want to leave its schools. Instead, groups such as Keep PPS Strong, SOS-NJ, the teacher’s union, and the Board of Ed’s own president have called PCS racist, segregationist, guilty of vandalism, and elitist. It is none of those things. It fills a need that PPS does not for a substantial portion of its students.

It is also worth noting that per the local paper “Town Topics,” the pro-rata cost of the average tax increase in town related to the PCS expansion is about $47 per household. Not per person — per household. That’s the cost of two pizzas plus tip. Is this *really* what we’re fighting over in a town with such unbelievably blessed resources, to give kids the best chance they can have?

When people say, “Why should my taxes go to a school that my kids don’t need?” — could I not be saying the same about sports programs that Tristan, who also receives physical therapy, another need Littlebrook missed — will never participate in? Could I not just say that about Littlebrook as a whole — despite a budget outsized by any measure versus comparable districts, why is my money going to a school that fails to recognize as common a condition as autism? Why indeed?

I’ll close by re-iterating that I’m not anti-PPS; I’m pro what works for my child. PPS is working now for Aaron, and the jury is out where we’ll send him for kindergarten, depending on his abilities; right now, sadly, we are frequent flyers to CHOP as they try to suss out what looks like a fundamental genetic issue in our sons. And that is what’s getting lost in the weeds of massaged per student costs, and contests over which district had the fancier fundraising gala, and bogus charges of racism. If you want to make PCS a memory, find out why students leave PPS and fix those problems. In the interim, it is simply a shameful tyranny of the majority to demonize parents and children who are seeking school success for their kids when their zoned option failed them. Work with them, not against them, until such a point that PPS can have all of its zoned students succeed in its own schools. Thank you.

What do you think?


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