At 100 years, Jenks honors the past, eyes future

by Kyle Bagenstose
Posted 4/20/23

It was one the most endearing sounds one can hear: children’s laughter. And it was hard to believe that three years earlier, it wasn’t there at all.

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At 100 years, Jenks honors the past, eyes future


It was one the most endearing sounds one can hear: children’s laughter. And it was hard to believe that three years earlier, it wasn’t there at all.

On a recent spring day, Corinne Scioli, principal of the John Story Jenks Academy for Arts and Sciences in Chestnut Hill, walked the building’s colorful hallways, soaking in the joy. Children – waiting for art class, for lunch, for recess – broke from their lines to give a hug and say hello. One gifted Scioli a purple tulip abruptly cut off at the stem, almost certainly plucked from a nearby flower bed.

“Oh, thank you!” Scioli said, her amusement winning out over any disciplinary instinct. 

Things looked very different when Scioli arrived to lead the school in 2021. It was early in the pandemic and remote learning left the hallways empty. One of the school’s most charming community assets – a large auditorium that looks little changed since its opening a century ago – served as a warehouse for boxes upon boxes of PPE and other COVID-related supplies. 

Of even greater concern, enrollment also suffered. Before the pandemic, 513 children attended Jenks. That dropped to 458 the following year, and 413 the next. 

Scioli and her staff rolled up their sleeves. As they began to prepare the building for a transition back to in-person learning, they started removing the boxes from the auditorium, clearing out the space. That’s when Scioli saw – for the first time – a large, proud painting of the school’s seal on the wall behind the stage.

Jenks was back. But what next?

A century of schooling

Jenks first opened its doors in 1923, creating an occasion for centennial celebrations this year. But much of the early history of the school remains a mystery to Scioli and other staff.

The building’s architect was Irwin T. Catharine, one of the most prolific in all of the city’s history. The son of a Philadelphia school board chair, Catharine is famous for his push to revolutionize the school’s fleet of buildings. Prior to his efforts, it was common for schools to be dark and cramped, with students going to the bathroom in latrines outside the buildings and heading home for lunch, according to Hidden City Philadelphia.

But Catharine designed adjustable blueprints to create modern buildings on any size plot of land, complete with boys' and girls' bathrooms on each floor, cafeterias, and auditoriums. That’s why so many similarities can be seen in other Catharine-designed school buildings, such as Overbrook and Simon Gratz High Schools, and the former Board of Education Building that sits next to The Franklin Institute.

Little else is known about Jenks’ history, at least up until the years that some former students who are still living can remember. But for such folks as Madeline Pendleton, the schools’ appeal is no great mystery.

“I love the people here. It’s like family” she said.

A Mt. Airy resident, Pendleton started volunteering at the school in 1995 after her children matriculated. She then began a 25-year stint as a beloved crossing guard, retiring in 2021 after her knees began to ache from all the criss-crossing from corner to corner. Still, she couldn’t quite bring herself to fully pull away, and stayed on as a part-time teaching assistant.

There are a lot of memories at the building, she said. Her children, now in their mid-30s, helped paint murals that still adorn the building’s main hallway. She has no regrets in sending them to Jenks over the area’s many private schools and says she would do so again today. Asked why, she points to both the free education and the staff.

“The educators are the heart of the building,” Pendleton said. “They love what they do and they give these kids everything.”

Warren Keels, also a Mt. Airy resident, has three generations’ worth of memories and stories about the school. Now in his 80s, Keels has had children, grandchildren, and now great-grandchildren enrolled at Jenks. They’ve gone on to become educators, public administrators, and most recently, a Naval officer.

“From the very beginning, and up to (the current) date, I like Jenks,” Keels said. “I like the programs, I like the staff. We’ve just been very comfortable.”

Strengthening the case for public school

In its 100th year, Scioli isn’t relying on any warm memories of the past for Jenks. She knows it’s a competitive environment. School district data show just 34% of students enrolled at Jenks live in its catchment area. While Jenks has increased the share of catchment-area public school students selecting it over other city schools in the past four years, overall enrollment is still shrinking.

So Scioli is thinking big. She’s instituted a plan to make Jenks an International Baccalaureate (IB) school, an international curriculum accreditation she says is similar domestically to Advanced Placement (AP), but with more emphasis on innovation and service.

It’s a big investment: the school district agreed to provide more than $250,000 to implement the program, and Jenks has also relied on its independent fundraising organization Friends of J.S. Jenks to foot the costs.

But, that money will help fund two new IB-required key positions, including a world languages teacher (likely Spanish) and a program coordinator who will also administer the school’s revitalized library. All together, Scioli thinks it will leave a lasting change, and offer an education that may attract parents who are now on the fence about whether or not to choose a public school. 

“I want to make sure every seat in the school is filled with all of our students from right here,” Scioli said. “We want to make it the best local neighborhood school that it can and should be.”

Of course, for Jenks’ current students, this is all just grown-up speak. For them, 100 years means pure celebration. A new commemorative mural adorns the outside walls, replete with imagery of the Wissahickon and the school’s three principles: caring, responsibility, and reflection. On February 8, the school had an official party to mark the centennial, and has an alumni event planned for June 1.

But most pressing at the moment is the school’s May musical production of “The Lion King,” selected for its theme of the circle of life. 

“So we can showcase the past, present, and future,” Scioli said. “Where we’ve been, where we are, and where we’re heading.”