Education

Iowa group honors Cedar Rapids magnet school leader

Candace Lynch named 'Elementary Principal of the Year'

Principal Candace Lynch listens May 3 as fourth-grader Daenovious Johnson discusses the “Basketball Champs” game he is working on in the all-cardboard arcade “discovery day” group at Johnson STEAM Academy in Cedar Rapids. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
Principal Candace Lynch listens May 3 as fourth-grader Daenovious Johnson discusses the “Basketball Champs” game he is working on in the all-cardboard arcade “discovery day” group at Johnson STEAM Academy in Cedar Rapids. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Before Candace Lynch, most of the oldest students at Johnson STEAM Academy had seen three different elementary principals and lost many trusted teachers to staff turnover.

The effect of that churn occurred to Lynch years ago, she said, around the time she decided to apply to be principal in 2013.

“If you can’t rely on the same faces every year when you come back … how do you ever really know what school is supposed to be?” Lynch, 58, asked. “Uncertainty impacts academics. It impacts how you’re going to behave if you can’t rely on people who are going to stick around you.”

In six years at Johnson, 355 18th St. SE, Lynch has established a sense of stability at the Cedar Rapids school while building a community that recognizes “the potential of each and every child,” according to the School Administrators of Iowa.

The statewide organization las month named Lynch its Elementary Principal of the Year.

Johnson is a preschool-through-fifth-grade school and became the Cedar Rapids Community School District’s first magnet school in 2015. Its students are majority non-white, and about 80 percent of them qualify for low-income benefits.

Since Lynch became principal, she has tried to empower teachers to collaborate and challenge one another on new projects and ideas, she said.

“The one thing I was committed to doing was giving our teachers license to do what’s right by kids,” she said. “As long as we have a strong rationale and research behind it, let’s give it a whirl.”

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She also believes in giving students ownership of their learning, which has dovetailed with the magnet school’s model of integrating its science, technology, engineering, arts and math theme throughout the curriculum.

On a recent Friday, Lynch visited classrooms during a “discovery day,” when students spend hours on a project of their choice.

She watched as students in various rooms learned how to build and engineer arcade games from cardboard, write spoken word poetry and design and sew blankets for teddy bears.

Lynch’s approach toward students has evolved since the beginning of her education career, she said, when as a stricter first-year teacher she approached students “as Attila the Hun” and faced strong pushback.

“It was really at that time when I thought, you know, this is not my classroom — this is our classroom,” she said. “That’s what got me on the whole kick about culture. It matters. Kids have to feel like they matter and belong in the learning community.”

A Johnson fourth-grader who had built an arcade game — similar to basketball, with Dixie cups as hoops and an elaborate point system — approached Lynch. Did she want to play?

“You forgot that if you don’t have fun and expose kids to a lot of things, they don’t love school anyway,” she said. “We have to do things like this, and then tie in the literacy and tie in the math. That’s our job — and that’s a harder way to teach because it’s way easier to open your curriculum rather than look at standards and say, ‘How are we going to get there in an innovative way?’”

• Comments: (319) 398-8330; molly.duffy@thegazette.com

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