‘Joyful learning’ is the byword for Lynnwood’s new principal

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

Jacqulyn Vandenburg displays a sign on Monday, congratulating her on being Lynnwood Elementary School’s principal while the Lynnwood kindergartners who made the sign look on excitedly.

GUILDERLAND — Jacqulyn Vandenburg repeatedly uses the words “fun” and “joy” when she describes her work at Lynnwood Elementary School.

This week, the long-time teacher was officially named the school’s principal, a post she had filled on an interim basis since July.

The former principal, Alicia Rizzo, is battling cancer. “I can’t imagine Lynnwood coming back in a pandemic without me as the leader of the school,” Rizzo had said before the school year started in September 2020, after all schools had been remote at the end of the prior school year because of the pandemic.

Rizzo also said, “Work is the best medicine.” As Rizzo underwent chemotherapy treatments, she had backup from Barbara Goldstein, who had filled in as interim principal when Rizzo was out in 2019.

“Alicia retired in August so she could concentrate on her medical challenges …,” said Superintendent Marie Wiles this week. “She is holding her own.”

Goldstein didn’t want to be full-time, Wiles said, so Vandenburg became interim principal last July. “It’s been quite a journey for everyone connected with Lynnwood,” said Wiles.

“It was really hard when Alicia was struggling with her health,” said Vandenburg this week. “And I think it’s a real testament to the staff here at Lynnwood and their commitment to kids because, as hard as that was, we remained committed to our vision and to our work and really tried to hold it together even though our leader was having her own struggles.”

When Vandenburg became the interim principal last summer, she said, her focus was to “bring some stability … to the building for the kids, for the community, and for the staff … Then, on top of that, we had a global pandemic.”

Having been a teacher at the school, Vandenburg said, helped her because she “had experienced it from both sides.”

Asked where she drew her strength in the midst of the pandemic, bringing stability to the school, Vandenburg said, “I think it’s twofold.”

First, she said, she comes from a big family with three siblings of her own. “I have lots of cousins …,” she said. “I have friends and aunts and uncles.”

Vandenburg said she knows how important it is to pull from “a big bank of people” and so she creates that for the students and community at Lynnwood. “It was important in my life so I want to try to foster that here,” said Vandenburg.

The second part is that she loves her work. “I really mean it genuinely: This is work I really enjoy,” said Vandenburg. “Even when it’s hard, I find this work fun. It keeps me on my toes. I love that every day is a little bit different …  I try to make it joyful because it’s genuine.”

 

Expanding career

Wiles said that 51 people applied for the Lynnwood principal’s job. “We were delighted with both the size and quality of the applicant pool,” she said.

Wiles described the selection process as “rigorous” and said that a new step was added with applicants having to submit a video answering questions before two rounds of traditional interviews for the selected candidates.

Vandenburg stood out from the start of the process, “exuding all of the things we value,” said Wiles. This included a passion for teaching and learning, a commitment to students, and positive energy.

Wiles had known Vandenberg not just as superintendent but also as a parent since Wiles’s son had Vandenberg as his fifth-grade teacher.

The school board members applauded Vandenburg at their March 29 meeting after appointing as probationary principal for a four-year term, running retroactively from July 26, 2021 to July 25, 2025. The annual salary is $110,000.

“I’m really grateful for this opportunity …,” Vandenburg told The Enterprise this week. “I do think it speaks to the district’s commitment to their people, you know? I started here as a teacher and they’ve created conditions where I’ve been able to expand my own professional career.”

Vandenburg, a lifelong resident of the Capital Region, realized as a high school student at Holy Names that she loved working with kids when she taught dance and cheerleading.

She says she may have “caught the bug” from her mother, a nurse focused on pediatrics. Her father is in the insurance business and had hoped she’d follow that line of work.

At Siena College, Vandenburg started as a business major, which was interesting, she said, but “wasn’t sparking a whole lot of joy.”

She enjoyed literature and writing and so majored in English and then, after graduation, went directly to The College of Saint Rose to pursue her passion, receiving master’s degrees in childhood education and special education.

Her first teaching job was at St. Pius X School where she taught fourth grade for three years.

“I learned a lot there,” said Vandenburg. “The families were wonderful … I also really learned the appreciation and the importance of that sense of community and education.”

After three years, Vandenburg thought, “I’m ready to learn more and take on more … I would describe myself as a mover and shaker,” she said. “I like to keep things fresh.”

So she applied for a teaching job at Lynnwood Elementary School and was hired in July 2013. “I can still remember the phone call from Alicia Rizzo to offer me the position. I remember exactly where I was and I just knew, this is going to be great. I was so excited … It was my dream job and still is.”

After teaching fifth grade at Lynnwood for six years, Vandenburg took the math specialist position at the school, which allowed her to work with students throughout the building as well as collaborating with other teachers.

She also enjoyed the district-level discussions with teachers in other buildings.

Also, in being principal now, Vandenburg says she enjoys interacting with students in different ways than when she was in the classroom.

“One of my favorite parts of the day is in the morning. I’m either outside or standing in the doorway … I get to greet them right when they’re coming in and say, ‘Good morning,’” she said.

Asked about her goals as principal, Vandenburg said that, coming off the pandemic, Lynnwood, as a building, is thinking of ways to engage the community in “new fun ways.” Restrictions due to COVID-19 made it “difficult to have the same type of opportunities for the families and the community to see all the great things we’re doing at the school,” she said.

Also important, Vandenburg said, is “that commitment to having the kids feel that they have a place and they are an important part of the Lynnwood community, so that they come to school really feeling like they belong and are here for joyful learning.”

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