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Beth Behrend hasn’t always lived on the East Coast. Nor has she always worked in education or politics. And the synthesis of these different perspectives, she believes, is one of her strengths in her candidacy for a seat on the Princeton School Board of Education.

Behrend grew up in Wisconsin and pursued her undergraduate degree at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, ultimately staying in the Midwest for law school at the University of Michigan. 

“I’m from a small town in Wisconsin, but my family was very involved in the community,” Behrend said. “And when we saw something that needed to be fixed, we just went out, started an organization, and fixed it.”

Though she worked in the private sector for a large part of her career in corporate law — for Shearman & Sterling, Schlumberger Ltd., Kozmo.com, and Medarex, Inc., according to her LinkedIn profile — it is in the past few years that she has re-dedicated a large part of her life to community service.

With three children attending Princeton Public Schools, Behrend started out championing school gardens, raising money, and organizing the garden fair, entitled “Healthy Children, Healthy Planet.” She has served on the Riverside Parent-Teachers Organization leadership team and is a secretary for the Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association, which works to protect and promote central New Jersey watersheds. She currently serves as the vice president of the Parent-Teacher Organizations Council for Princeton Public Schools. 

Nevertheless, Behrend still uses her skills from corporate law.

“I look at issues from a lens of more of a business sense, so when you want to do something, you want to change something, how much is it going to cost? What will the impact be on the taxpayers? How will it affect the budget? Can we plan for the long-term?” Behrend explained.

She decided to run for the school board after being dissatisfied with the results of the 2016 presidential election.

“After the election, I looked around and said, ‘What can I do personally to take the best advantage of my background and my skills?’” Behrend said.

Behrend believes that the timing of this election aligns ideally with her strengths. The school board, she says, has a $95 million budget, and it is getting ready to make the complicated financial decisions that comes with renovating school facilities — decisions that will impact the district for years and need a view towards the future.

“We need a long-term plan as a community. We need to look ahead together, looking at people from the municipality, parents. We need to look at people from the charter school, people from all the different communities in our town and look into the future and say what do we want the town to look like in 10-20 years?” Behrend said.

Besides long-term planning, Behrend hopes to prioritize students’ mental well-being and the achievement gap. She wants to focus on the metrics, looking at graduation rates, absentee rates, and discipline to help shape future solutions for student outcomes. She noted that much has been done already in those areas, and she just wants to help continue that conversation. 

Behrend explained that a focus on diversity and minority groups is particularly important.

“Diversity is a wonderful thing. It can really enhance education. It can enhance us as a community,” Behrend said. “I’m from a place that is very non-diverse, so I know the difference.”

While campaigning, she has had the opportunity to learn more about the different communities and perspectives in Princeton. She’s been able to reach out to families with children who have special needs and families with children who attend Princeton Charter School. Though actively opposed to the charter school’s enrollment expansion, Behrend said that it’s been beneficial to hear the stories of the families whose children are happy at the charter school.

“Everyone has their theories and their ideas,” Behrend said. “But when you sit and pour a cup of coffee and speak with people, you get a much better sense of the depth of what’s going on.” 

According to Behrend, what was especially satisfying to learn while campaigning was the history behind the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood. When Princeton was a segregated town, the neighborhood was where minority families, including those who worked to construct the University, were restricted to living. New Jersey banned segregation in the state constitution in the middle of the 20th century

The neighborhood has since built up a rich cultural history with some families, Behrend says, that have lived there for five generations. Today, the neighborhood is considered a historical district and is home to many people of color. 

Behrend was empowered to learn more about the community after reading former U. professor and current University of Pennsylvania professor Kathryn Watterson’s "I Hear My People Singing: Voices of African American Princeton," a history of the neighborhood documented through the oral testimonies of the African American residents.

Despite the neighborhood’s roots in Princeton, Behrend notes that her children never got the chance in school to go into the neighborhood and explore its history. She hopes to continue supporting the current efforts to preserve and spread awareness of the “living history” in that neighborhood. At least to some, according to Behrend, this could explain why the opportunity gap still exists in town.

“I feel like if we can’t do it [close the achievement gap] in Princeton, where can it be done?” Behrend said.

Behrend, along with five other candidates, will be on the ballot Nov. 7. She will be vying for one of three vacant seats on the Board of Education.

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