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A public school in Chestnut Hill courts the locals

The school formerly known as J.S. Jenks Elementary may not have a generous budget, a large staff, or a core of wealthy parents to help pay for extras.

Jenks Academy for the Arts kindergartener Taylor Webb works on a computer teaching module, Nov. 25, 2014. (CLEM MURRAY/Staff Photographer)
Jenks Academy for the Arts kindergartener Taylor Webb works on a computer teaching module, Nov. 25, 2014. (CLEM MURRAY/Staff Photographer)Read more

The school formerly known as J.S. Jenks Elementary may not have a generous budget, a large staff, or a core of wealthy parents to help pay for extras.

But what Jenks, the neighborhood public school high atop Germantown Avenue in Chestnut Hill, does have is momentum.

Consider: Despite Philadelphia School District-wide budget cuts, the school has managed to hang on to a robust program of art, music, and after-school activities. It was recently renamed J.S. Jenks Academy for the Arts and Sciences to stress its curricular emphasis and aspirations.

And the school of 455 kindergarten through eighth-grade students also scored a major victory this month when it was named one of four citywide winners of the district's School Redesign Initiative, a program that gives seed money to help spur grassroots innovation.

Along with Chester Arthur Elementary in South Philadelphia, Carnell Elementary in Oxford Circle, and Tilden Middle in Southwest Philadelphia, Jenks won $30,000 in the redesign program. The staff, said principal Mary Lynskey, aims to "extend learning beyond the walls and beyond the bells" - by changing the way students are taught, adding out-of-school and summer programming, and emphasizing 21st-century skills.

Jenks was built in 1922 to educate children of the servants of moneyed Chestnut Hill, and fewer than half its pupils come from within the school's catchment area. More than 60 percent of its students live in poverty, and 13 percent qualify for special education services.

But Jenks, which Lynskey calls "the last hope of people who still believe in public education or can't afford an alternative," is serious about competing with the private schools within a few miles.

"We would like to gain our neighborhood back," she said.

The redesign grant helps, but change was already afoot. For the last four years, the school has shifted toward new instructional models designed to engage students differently, with more hands-on learning, technology, and other tools.

"It's a huge mistake for us to keep teaching children the way we were taught," Lynskey said. "Our students will be competing with students in China and India and the rest of the world. We have to prepare them for that."

In the lower grades, that means collaborative classrooms, with two teachers in a single, larger classroom for livelier, more differentiated instruction. On a recent day, Faith Glanzmann and Steve Kennedy's combined kindergarten classroom was vibrant but orderly, with about 50 5-year-olds sitting in small groups at tables, on rugs, or at computers. Two student teachers, a fixture at Jenks in the early grades, helped with small-group instruction.

In the middle grades, Jenks' focus is science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Every eighth grader takes algebra I, part of the school's plan to make sure students are at or ahead of grade level.

Middle school students spend part of each day in "Clinic," augmenting their learning, either with tutoring for struggling students, or extras such as a stock market class, a guitar class, or a first-aid class. After school, there are dragon boating, golf, and soccer. There are a bucket drumming group and a school musical.

Outside are a community-built playground that is the hit of the neighborhood, and a garden that parents tend during the summer.

But, as with all district schools, at Jenks, miserable finances underscore everything.

In the last few years, Jenks has lost a number of staffers, including an arts teacher, dean of students, school police officer, and other support staff. It had to give up its foreign language program and cut in other areas.

But the school has hung on with help from two active volunteer groups, the traditional Home and School Association, and the Friends of J.S. Jenks, a nonprofit better positioned for large-scale fund-raising and reaching out to the community.

It has support from the Chestnut Hill business community and a growing list of partnerships with organizations around the city. It holds tea socials to welcome prospective parents.

Willie Williams, parent of a fourth grader and Jenks' Home and School president, knows there are plenty of other options in the neighborhood.

"But this is a very good school," said Williams, son of a former police commissioner.

He says he is pleased with the school's new direction and determined to continue to supplement what the district can provide. Jenks badly needed a new portable sound system, for instance, so the Home and School Association raised the money for it.

"You figure out what the need is, and you find a way," Williams said.

Before her son was of school age, Haviva Goldman "went through the same worry lots of people do - what are we going to do for elementary school? Do I have to leave the city? Do I have to send him to private school?"

She got involved at Jenks and enrolled her son, who now attends Masterman. She also has a daughter in kindergarten at the school.

"My son received an excellent education," said Goldman. a professor at Drexel University's medical school. "He was always challenged."

In Chestnut Hill, Goldman said, perceptions about Jenks are shifting.

"There's a more positive vibe about the school than there's ever been," she said. "There are always going to be people who choose private schools. But I do feel like people are exploring us as an option."

Redesigning City Schools

Four schools were recently awarded Redesign Initiative Grants by the Philadelphia School District. The $30,000 awards went to schools that plan grass-roots shifts in how they operate. After a design year, the schools could get more financing, support, and flexibility to fully implement their chosen model. They are:

Chester A. Arthur Elementary, South Philadelphia. Using an inquiry-based approach to instruction modeled after Science Leadership Academy.

Laura H. Carnell Elementary, Oxford Circle. Creating a project-based learning environment for all students.

J.S. Jenks Elementary, Chestnut Hill. Enhancing teacher collaboration and improving use of resources through a "shared classroom" model. Combating summer learning loss through a blended technology and excursion-based summer learning experience.

Tilden Middle School, Southwest Philadelphia. Using blended learning technology to personalize instruction for all students.


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