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A Shining Start
The Pen Ryn School nurtures and shapes students into confident, inquisitive “citizens of the world”

by Bill Donahue

At The Pen Ryn School, a private family-oriented school in Fairless Hills with a rich, 67-year tradition, there’s a familiar refrain that has become indicative of the school’s all-around value: “Kids love Pen Ryn.”

It’s easy to see why, considering the school’s ability to shape students into inquisitive, respectful and confident “citizens of the world,” in the words of Liz Morton, head of school. Here, kids learn how to thrive academically, personally and socially. These are some of the same reasons why parents love Pen Ryn, too.

Barb Lupica is among those satisfied parents. Three of her children have graduated from Pen Ryn, with another currently in seventh grade. Her son, now attending Bucknell University, was the first in the family to enter the school—as a second grader—following an underwhelming experience in the public school system.

“He was probably in first grade at the time, and I asked his teacher if he was doing OK, and she said, ‘Um, I don’t know,’” recalls Lupica, whose family lives in Newtown. “That would never happen at Pen Ryn because the teachers know the kids. My four kids are completely different from each other, and the teachers worked with them however they needed to be worked with to bring out their potential.

“Besides the strength of its academics,” she continues, “Pen Ryn teaches kids to treat each other with respect. But the biggest thing for me is probably that kids learn confidence there. Because they have such a fantastic base, they can go on to whatever high school or college they want and succeed.” 

As Lupica and other Pen Ryn parents can attest, Pen Ryn holds a unique position. A small school with only 260 students from nursery through eighth grade, Pen Ryn is known for its collaborative learning and intimate class sizes (12 to 18 students per class), where kids can build a strong academic foundation, experience new things and prepare for the next phase of their education, according to Morton.

“We care about our kids,” she says. “There’s a lot of nurturing, encouraging and empowering being done here, and we push kids to be as strong as they can be in reading, math and other areas. I think of students who have come here after transferring from a larger school, and all of a sudden they discover that they’re not a number. They learn to understand what they are capable of doing, and we expect them to work up to their ability.”

From age 3 on, for example, Pen Ryn students are challenged to become proficient in public speaking. This continues throughout their time at Pen Ryn, culminating in eighth-grade graduation, when all students make a speech about their time and experiences at the school. High school administrators often remark on how impressed they are with incoming freshmen who graduated from Pen Ryn, largely because of their public-speaking skills, according to assistant head of school Karen Fried.

A particularly enriching curriculum—language studies include Mandarin, while Spanish classes start as early as prekindergarten—builds essential skills through collaborative learning, with hands-on activities that engage students and help them absorb material on a deeper level. The administration also treats every child as an individual; whereas some students excel in sports, others are more attuned to intellectual or creative pursuits, so the school offers something to appeal to every student.

“We want them to be well rounded,” Morton says. “We offer sports for kids who are sports minded, with a no-cut policy, because it’s the experience that matters. … Here, we also have scientists, artists, musicians and students who love language, and we encourage our kids to discover what they are good at and have a passion for.”

In a bigger school, such a comprehensive curriculum might not be possible, according to Fried, who cites another motto for which the school has become known: “small school, big difference.”

“Students also have a trimester of chess, which gives them critical-thinking skills,” says Fried. “Chess can be purely about fun or about competition, but it helps them learn to problem solve and strategize. … It’s treated like a sport here—a sport of the mind—and it’s just one example of how we enable every child to pursue something they might excel at.”

Preparing for the Future
Pen Ryn currently hosts several students of international origin, underscoring to other students the importance of diversity and global learning. Technology is equally important; the school has two mobile computer labs, complete with MacBooks, Netbooks and iPads, while upper school students have the option to take advantage of the school’s “BYOD” (bring your own device) policy by using their own computers in class. Smart boards are found in every classroom.

Because of all these things, Pen Ryn parent Erin Conway Howell believes she discovered a “golden nugget” when she decided to send her two children there. Her daughter spent the last three years of her elementary-school career at Pen Ryn, while her son is presently in the sixth grade.

“The first time I went there, I remember the kids greeting me when I walked through the halls, and I remember them greeting Liz,” says Howell, whose family is based in Yardley. “She knew all their names, and it was obvious there was a great sense of community at the school. … Kids are motivated to learn, and that’s contagious.”

Her daughter, who has since graduated from Pen Ryn and is now excelling at Doane Academy, a prestigious private high school in Burlington, N.J., had been enrolled at Pen Ryn for one year when she decided to transfer her son to the school.

“We were at a family function at the school, and my son at the time was in second grade,” she recalls. “He just felt something at that school—the positive energy, the sense of motivation. He said, ‘Why can’t I go here?’ You can feel that there’s a tremendous acceptance at Pen Ryn; they value individuality, and that kind of acceptance really helps a child build their confidence.

“During their time at the school, both my kids were free to explore different sports and afterschool activities,” she continues. “You don’t have to be the best at something there; you just have to join. That builds confidence as well, and kids can feel out what their passions are. It’s great exposure.”

Above all, Pen Ryn students learn that it’s OK to like what they like and, more importantly, to like the person they have become, according to Morton.

“The end product is kids who know themselves, who have a strong academic background, who work well in groups cooperatively and who love learning,” she says. “Our goal is to develop strong people and strong students who have a thirst to learn for the rest of their life.”

Lupica believes that’s exactly what her kids—three of whom have already graduated from Pen Ryn—have become. But Lupica herself has grown as well. Like all Pen Ryn parents, she volunteers a minimum of 25 hours of time in a given school year, including at school events steeped in tradition; fathers volunteer to cook during an annual Mother’s Day Breakfast, for example, while moms and dads participate in another annual favorite for sixth to eighth graders, the Halloween Sleepover. She is happy to devote her time and energy to “a wonderful community”—and to her children’s future.

“I loved the people at Pen Ryn from the moment I stepped foot through the door, but I wasn’t sure if my kids would be prepared for high school,” she says. “In addition to my seventh grader, I have one in college now, another one who’s a senior [in high school] and a third who is a sophomore, and they’ve been more than prepared for anything that’s come at them.

“Because of the foundation they got at Pen Ryn, they could have gone anywhere and been successful.”

The Pen Ryn School
235 South Olds Blvd.
Fairless Hills, PA 19030
Phone: 215-547-1800
Web: www.penryn.org

Suburban Life Magazine