BY REBECCA FANG & IRENE QUAN, Editors-in-chief
For the past five years, JP Stevens—and the entirety of Edison Township—has had unprecedented population growth. Every student has felt the effects of this, whether it is in a classroom with almost 30 other students, in a sweltering cafeteria during lunch, or simply in the auditorium for study hall. To combat this crisis, the Edison Board of Education has introduced an expansion plan, the Long-Range Facilities Master Plan (LRFMP), spearheaded by SSP Architects. This proposal will expand existing school buildings in Edison Township in order to address the overpopulation issue currently plaguing Edison’s schools. Though progress will be gradual throughout the next 5-10 years, the intimations of change are already being welcomed as a much needed solution for Edison’s schools.
Before finalizing their LRFMP, the SSP Architects conducted a demographic study of the entire district, collecting enrollment numbers to predict future trends. Contrary to popular belief, Edison’s population growth was described as slow to moderate, with birth rates declining from 2007’s high of 1,407 to a recent low of 1,149. However, these developments have not been mirrored in Edison’s student population. Over the past six years, the district has absorbed a 13.1% student increase (+1,886), a trend that will continue to prevail. Even with the inclusion of trailers, JP’s own population has greatly outgrown its original capacity years ago. If the LRFMP passes, it can hopefully ease many of these pressures caused by overcrowding.
The plan itself delineates simple goals: accommodate overcrowding, improve safety, and renew infrastructure, among many others. In JP Stevens, capacity needs have been centered on two-story additions and alterations, including 43 new classrooms and labs, an expanded gym and cafeteria, and a new music/orchestra center. For many, it may come as a relief to hear that there will be more air conditioning units added, particularly in the auditorium, to improve overall ventilation. These changes are long overdue, as JP is currently 481 people over its capacity, the highest amongst all Edison schools; in five years, JP is projected to be 964 people over capacity.
With so many students arriving in such a short time span, many people believe that change cannot come fast enough. For teachers, having smaller class sizes makes it easier to attend to each and every student’s needs. Mrs. Brandstetter, an AP World History teacher at JP Stevens, believes that the benefits of the plan far outweigh the costs. “Statistics tell you that the smaller your classes, the more student contact you have, the better it is for education. We now have classes with 20, 30 students, and it’s crowded. You cannot give the attention that you could give to a 20-person class,” Mrs. Brandstetter said.
The advantages of the plan can also be seen in the increase in opportunities that can be afforded to students. For JP’s extensive directory of co-curricular activities, there is a relative dearth of spaces for them to meet. Ms. Pawlikowski commented on the necessity of a larger school, “We don’t have anywhere but the cafeteria to meet when it comes to large groups like FCCLA, OM, and Model UN. When they want to get their whole group, they’re spread out among several classrooms, or they’re in the hallway. We need areas where we can just meet and work together and collaborate after school.” Therefore, the LRFMP would not only expand the physical structure of JP, but it would also expand the possibilities offered to each student to grant them a quality education.
However, regardless of the ability of the plan to alleviate overpopulation in Edison schools, the fact remains that expanding existing school buildings only remedies the effects without directly addressing the issue at hand. In the end, tax dollars will be spent on a widespread expansion that sidesteps the problem of overpopulation itself. In April 2019, the Edison Board of Education announced that they were suing the zoning board for approving the building of new homes. On Oak Tree Road, the zoning board approved an eight-unit building where a single-family home used to be, a practice that has become increasingly common. If the root cause of the overcrowding crisis is not addressed first, there will come a point where the BoE will not be able to continue expanding.
Before the release of the LRFMP, rumors of building a third high school circulated around the town. According to Student Council President Brian Dan-Ding, “One of the only feasible areas is around JAMS. We have talked to the administration about the viability of it. It’s a designated wetlands area, and that takes more effort … to just bulldoze it and build a new school.” As more land is approved for building projects, even more students will enroll in the school district and less land will be viable for this hypothetical third school. With this timeline, the exigencies of finding a comprehensive solution are a harsh reality that both the BoE and township must come to terms with as soon as possible.
As this deadline approaches, the BoE is projected to hold a Bond Referendum in September 2019. As time slowly ticks, we may find it necessary to deal with the symptoms of these growing problems before a final decision is reached.