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Better or Just Harder? A Closer Look at South Brunswick Academics

By Esha Peer ('21)

In the 1980s, a large cornfield held the potential for producing more than just crops. Capital was built on it, and according to, it became the 8th largest high school in New Jersey known as South Brunswick High School (SBHS). Today, it not only stands out for its immense size but its notable rankings as well. Many have presumed that because of demographic changes, the school’s academics have been greatly affected.

In a day and age where college acceptance rates are decreasing, it’s hard to tell whether a school is getting more competitive in its academics, or its students just are. So how does SBHS compare to its academics from the past? This article will be going over the changes in the academic makeup of the school and what factors could have played into this.

Psychology calls it the Flynn Effect: the newer the generation, the smarter the kids are. Based on this theory, it would be easy to say that South Brunswick has gotten smarter, therefore its academics have gotten more competitive. But to easily study this, one would need the IQ scores of South Brunswick students from the 1980s to the present time, which is not readily available. Instead, different variables in the SBHS education system need to be taken into account, such as rankings over the years, enrollment in different subjects, and personal accounts.

It is important to first look at the accomplishments of the current high school.

According to Niche, in New Jersey, the school is the 24th best high school preparing students for college, and the 28th best public high school. It is also ranked in the top 500 for these two categories and best teachers in a public high school.

But rankings cannot necessarily show the comparison of South Brunswick’s education to itself; it cannot show how the school’s academics have shifted, and perhaps the student body with it. The historical changes of it, however, may.

The student body of SBHS has changed significantly, from class sizes to its demographics. South Brunswick High School was only established after a large enough population in the rural area called for a school. In 1963, 2 years after the school was first established, the senior class had only one black student out of a total of 62 graduates.

Former South Brunswick High School graduate and now unofficial South Brunswick historian Mr. James Zinsmeister said changes started to occur in the school as more people from the city moved in. As trains helped people travel to the city from farther places, suburbs like Kendall Park grew dramatically. White-collar workers, or people with higher-paying jobs, moved with their families to the farms of South Brunswick.

“It goes without saying--or should--that the township's relatively new affluence correlates with a dramatic increase in the overall academic achievement of the township's students,” said Mr. Zinsmeister.

Programs in the school were implemented to help students go straight into the workforce after high school. For example, in 1974 SBHS introduced the Community Involvement Personal Education Development (CIPED). What schools would call community service today had the purpose of making education more relevant to career goals for students. Only 60% of graduates that year were going to college, so for a large number of students, this program was beneficial for their future.

One of the valedictorians of the 1974 class, Ms. Nancy Langhans, felt a different issue in the education system.

“SBHS doesn’t offer courses that would prepare us for advanced placement,” said Langhans.

Because of the focus on going into the workforce in its early education, SBHS seems to have lacked classes for students who wanted to go on for college. Courses that are offered today at the honors and AP levels were less common in Langhans' time, thus also showing an important change in the high school: focus shifted from career-development to college readiness, allowing students to gain access to higher classes at an earlier time.

Over the next 45 years, the high school continued to change and develop its purpose and education system. Resolving Langhans' concerns about SBHS, the school started offering more AP leveled classes; by 1995, most students in SBHS history were taking AP leveled math and science classes. In 2006, SBHS had the 7th most merit scholar semi-finalists in the country. 91% that year were going for higher education, a drastic increase from decades past.

Demographics were also changing. In 1996, South Brunswick graduated its most diverse class, which spoke over 40 different languages. As previously mentioned, the demographic changes correlated with more white-collared workers moving into the district and enrolling their students in school. South Brunswick High School was no longer just a place for farmers to send their children before becoming the new breadwinners. It was a place for students of all races and socio-economic backgrounds to reach for higher education.

Today, SBHS has become the grounds for high academic achievement in the district. However, this may not be seen positively by everyone. Juniors Ben Phan and Ritika Sarma, agree that the school environment feels much more competitive than it has in their years before high school.

Phan said, “In middle school, you wouldn’t even think about comparing grades on tests. Now [in high school], it’s not even a question.”

Even teachers see a difference in the environment. Like students, social studies teacher Mrs. Samantha Saldahna feels that competition in the high school itself has increased in her 20 years of teaching. She has also seen changes in what the school focuses on.

“I used to teach a lot more classes of sociology and anthropology. Interest always changes, but you can also see a definitive shift towards STEM classes in our school over social studies classes,” said Mrs. Saldahna.

According to an article in The Atlantic, the findings from a 2012 Program for International Students Assessment scared the U.S. According to the data, US K-12 schools ranked 27th in math and 20th in science around the world. A push for more STEM classes was initiated not only by the Department of Education but by citizens reading headlines about their country falling behind.

“When I started here 18 years ago, [computer science was] a very small program,” said Mr. Peter Varella, principal of South Brunswick High School. “Now, the numbers grow exponentially each year. We have extraordinary computer science teachers that are teaching great things and all different levels.”

AP classes may be offered in all different subjects, but science, math, and computer science hold the majority of students in them. Students are not only aiming for higher education but have started concentrating on certain subjects of further study.

Although over the past few years little has changed in the perceived “smartness” of the school, it is clear to see that SBHS has graduated more students focused on higher education in the future and has students with much higher scores. This has a direct correlation with population increases in the area. Focusing more on education for the future than the general enjoyment of school is a natural negative. While the school may be on track for better test scores, its school environment filled with competition is something the education system may need to reconsider.

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