By Donald Gilpin
Two educators have recently stepped into key leadership roles in the Princeton Public Schools (PPS). Nancy Whalen, a former principal and guidance counselor in Hamilton Township, will be the interim principal at Riverside Elementary School for the 2022-23 school year, and Joy Barnes-Johnson, Princeton High School science teacher and racial literacy educator, will be the supervisor of science for grades 6 to 12.
Whalen succeeds Ebony Lattimer, who moved to a position as assistant principal at the Princeton Middle School, and Barnes-Johnson — subject to anticipated Board of Education approval at last night’s July 26 meeting, which took place after press time — takes over the science supervisor job from Mridula Bajaj, who moved to a similar position in another district.
In announcing Whalen’s appointment, PPS Superintendent Carol Kelley praised her extensive elementary school leadership experience, her background in counseling, and “a passion for elementary education.”
“My main objective in the beginning of the year here is really to build community,” said Whalen, who has already been meeting with Riverside teachers and administrators. She has additional meetings planned with Riverside Parent Teacher Organization members in August, and in the fall is looking forward to visiting every classroom to read with the students.
“I plan to meet all the students and get to know their names, so they see me and become familiar with who I am,” she added. “That’s important.”
In addition to “opening lines of communication, reaching out, and getting to know everybody,” close collaboration with the faculty is a priority for Whalen. “There’s always room for everybody to grow, so I’m going to try and build on that,” she said. “It’s going to be a collaborative effort with teachers, families, and myself to see where we need to grow.”
She went on to emphasize her support for Riverside’s goals of equity and inclusion, making sure all children and families feel included, as well as making learning a joyful process. “That’s important for kids, making it fun and interesting for them.”
She continued, “Their last goal at Riverside is ‘it takes a village,’ and that’s why my big emphasis is on building community, because it takes all of us for our children to do the best they can.”
Spending time with the students is what Whalen most looks forward to. “I can’t wait to be reading with them, to be going into their classrooms and seeing the things that they are learning,” she said. “It’s always exciting to see the light bulb go on for a child in a classroom.”
Whalen was principal at Sayen Elementary School in Hamilton Township from 2005 to 2019 and was a guidance counselor in the Hamilton district for nine years prior to that. She received Masters of Arts degrees in school leadership, counseling, and personnel services from The College of New Jersey and an undergraduate degree in elementary education from Elizabethtown College.
Barnes-Johnson, who has been in the PPS district for about 15 years, holds a Ph.D. in urban education from Temple University with a primary focus on STEM education teaching and policies. She has taught chemistry, material science, environmental science, and STEM-related humanities studies, and she is currently writing a book about Black educators and their allies working to pass on a heritage of joy to youth and communities.
She has published several articles on teacher preparation, policy, and curriculum design and has led professional development programs at school, district, and community levels. Her research explores equitable science teaching and learning, and she has presented at a number of conferences, expanding her work in sociology and social science education.
Barnes-Johnson has taught American cultural English, chemistry, and science education in China, Jamaica, and the United States. She works as a dissertation coach with graduate students and volunteers with education outreach programs throughout New Jersey, including the Trenton branch of the NAACP and the Paul Robeson House of Princeton, where she is the program committee chair.
In reflecting on her new position, Barnes-Johnson emphasized the importance of continuity in the PPS science department, “the fact that I’ve been there and I’ve understood the vision that was established many years ago to build capacity for STEM education for all students at every level.”
She expressed her excitement at taking on the challenges of her new position. “Continuing to help the research programs to grow, continuing to see broader and more rich participation of all students in our science programs at every level, integration of science with math, humanities, engineering, and innovation over the next cycle of growth is something that I’m looking forward to,” she said.
Barnes-Johnson noted that two of the greatest strengths that she brings to the job are her belief in equitable science education and the fact that she’s “very much vested in our community.”
She discussed her view of equitable science education. “That has come to mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people, but my background in sociology, my opportunities in the past to do research in university settings, and my curriculum experience lends itself to that,” she said.
She continued, “I’m excited about seeing our offerings expand, so that the idea of rigorous science goes beyond just AP classes, and every child has the opportunity to do research. We’re expanding our course offerings to open up these rigorous programs to all, creating more bridge programs where students who are a little apprehensive to take advanced classes will have more opportunities to participate at a pace that orients them through expanded summer options. It also means expanding the preparation pipeline so that when students get to high school they feel prepared for the advanced classes.”
She added that she’d like to see more and better science classes for high school students and also for students in the middle and elementary schools.
Two specific challenges that she knows she will face in the coming school year are the transition from teacher to administrator, “turning off my teacher self to favor my administrator self” and the growing population of the Princeton schools. “This mushrooming population is a very real challenge that we face,” she said. “We’re growing as a community, and where do we go? We’re already out of space.”
As the start of the new school year approaches, Barnes-Johnson is looking forward to the next phase of her career, and the opportunities to contribute to PPS’ continuing leadership in STEM education.
“I’m excited to be helping to set the course of the high school from my positions as a science and racial literacy educator,” she said. “I’ll get a chance to be at places and at tables that I haven’t been able to be at as a teacher.”