Jennifer Connolly always dreamed of being a leader — once even wanting to be the first female president of America — and now she’s doing that in her new role, beginning a chapter as the principal of Preston High School.
Over the years, Preston High in Throggs Neck has become a second home for Connolly. Not only is the Silver Beach resident an alumna, but she has also taught at the school for nearly 20 years. Preston also holds a special place for her family; her parents — Maryann Lanza Connolly and John Connolly — met there in 1965 at a school dance.
When word spread that former Principal Jane Grendell was retiring, colleagues suggested Connolly, 45, put her name in for the position. Much to her surprise, she was named her successor in April and officially began the new role in July.
“I figured I would throw my hat in the ring and see what happens,” she said. “It’s very surreal. At no point when I was a student did I ever think I was going to run this school. I thought I was going to run the country.”
Connolly, a Throggs Neck native, was always interested in history and politics. Her passion for those fields peaked in fifth grade when she sent a letter to former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Tip O’Neil, who personally responded.
After graduating from Preston High School in 1992, she attended American University in Washington, D.C. While she originally planned to study political science, Connolly switched her major to history during her sophomore year.
During college she worked in the White House mailroom and for former Bronx State Sen. Guy Velella, but Connolly still wasn’t sure how to get started in a career in politics. After speaking to an academic advisor at school, they suggested she take some education classes in case she ever decided to teach history.
She graduated from American University in 1996 with a Bachelor of Art in history, but her job search didn’t last long. Preston had an opening for a teacher.
“It was great because I walked in that first day knowing people, what things were, and it was very comfortable,” she said. “There wasn’t that anxiety you get on the first day of a new job.”
Preston High requires teachers to get a master’s, so after two years in the classroom she left to get a law degree. She obtained her J.D. from Hofstra University in 2002.
She practiced law for four years, but something kept pulling her back to academia. Connolly taught some of the required professional development courses for lawyers, which reminded her that her true calling was education, she said.
“I realized that I loved teaching, but I didn’t love teaching lawyers,” she said.
Seeking advice in her job search, Connolly reached out to former Preston Principal Lucille Coldrick. Out of nowhere, Coldrick said the school had an opening for a teacher and wanted to know if Connolly was interested.
Connolly could not believe what had just happened. The place where she started teaching was now offering her a job again.
Coldrick, who retired in 2008, was a mentor to Connolly, and like her similarly, was a history teacher before becoming principal.
Connolly said she does not regret practicing law for four years, because “she loves the law as well.”
“I was ready to take a pay cut and work somewhere new. And for it to be Preston, which is a place that I love and I’m comfortable at, made it all worth it,” she said.
Over the years she taught history, became the department chair in 2017 and was the founding director of the Preston Scholars Program in 2009.
Connolly told the Bronx Times that being a principal had never crossed her mind. Yet, she said her passion for education, experience as a lawyer, work ethic and desire to bring change will allow her to thrive.
“I’m looking forward to getting back into the building so we can celebrate 75 years of Preston,” she said. “My goal is for my students to become active and engaged citizens.”
Reach Jason Cohen at firstname.lastname@example.org or (646) 899-8058. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes