J.S. Jenks Principal Mary Lynskey was recognized with the Lindback Foundation’s Distinguished Principal Award.

J.S. Jenks Principal Mary Lynskey was recognized with the Lindback Foundation’s Distinguished Principal Award.

by Kevin Dicciani

When Mary Lynskey became the principal of John Story Jenks School, her philosophy was simple: School has to be more than just sitting at a desk.

Six years later, on April 22, Lynskey was one of seven principals in the Philadelphia School District awarded the 2014 Lindback Foundation’s Distinguished Principal Award. The award, funded by the Christian R. and Mary F. Lindback Foundation of Philadelphia, recognizes and rewards principals who have made significant leadership and humanitarian contributions to their school community.

The first priority for Lynskey at Jenks was to create an atmosphere that helped engage kids in a fun way that would also be conducive to learning.

“One of the things that has been lacking in education,” Lynskey said, “is that schools have lost assemblies, musicals, arts and crafts, and drama. Our idea is to take kids from the areas they’re excited about, engage them there, help them build confidence and self-esteem, then move them into areas that are of greater challenge.

“If they were hesitant at all or afraid of failure, now that they’ve known success they won’t be afraid to try new things.”

Lynskey has helped initiate such specialized programs as JAM (Jenks Art and Music) and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). STEM, Lynskey said, is designed to help prepare her students for the growing technological shift in the workplace.

To add to those programs, there is the Shared Classroom Experience for primary students, which opens up the doors between two classrooms to create a “giant learning lab.” Fourth and fifth graders have been doing monthly off-site science lessons at the Schuylkill Valley Nature Center and Awbury Arboretum, where students spend a whole day outside not only learning about the science programs the sites offer, but other subjects as well. In July, a group of sixth graders will be given scholarships to attend space camp and then return to work with other students.

The Lindback Foundation’s Distinguished Principal Award also comes with a $20,000 stipend. The money will go to a new Kindergarten Center, along with the creation of a computer center and a library/media center. There are also plans for a learning loft, a LEGO center and a train center.

Haviva Goldman, president of Friends of J.S. Jenks, said “funds from the award will benefit every child at Jenks and, hopefully, provide the school with some new infrastructure that will help strengthen it further.”

Although Jenks is evolving at a rapid pace, Lynskey’s long-range goals were curtailed by budgetary cuts for quite some time.

“Being a principal in the School District of Philadelphia at this time, with budget cuts and turmoil is no easy task,” Goldman said. “But Ms. Lynskey came to Jenks six years ago with a vision for the school, and she has not stopped trying to reach that vision, despite tightening budgets, teacher layoffs and many other challenges.”

For Jenks and for Lynskey there was always one other major impetus that propelled the school forward.

“Our saving grace is our community,” Lynskey said. “We absolutely have the best parents, fabulous kids and amazing teachers. People aren’t afraid to work and they’re not afraid to put their hands in the same pot and really get dirty and do what has to be done – that’s what made us able to continue moving forward.”

Lynskey may have personally won the award, but for her it’s the strong community surrounding her at Jenks and in Chestnut Hill that deserve all the credit.

“It’s not me getting this award,” she said. “It is our entire community because I am only one small piece of it, and without everyone working and growing in the same direction, I wouldn’t have any recognition because you’re only as strong as the people around you. It’s that whole team and family idea that has moved us to where we are.”