A Conversation with O'Neill Elementary's Jim York, Nebraska's National Distinguished Principal

A Conversation with O'Neill Elementary's Jim York, Nebraska's National Distinguished Principal

By Tyler Dahlgren

Each month, O’Neill Elementary students and staff gather in the school gymnasium to celebrate four weeks of student successes and classroom triumphs before flipping the calendar page and embarking on another.

And make no mistake about it, said principal Jim York, there’s a lot to celebrate at the school sitting on the northside of a town dubbed the “Irish Capital of Nebraska.” 

“It’s just a time for us to celebrate all of the cool stuff that happens at O’Neill Elementary,” said York, who’s been in his role since 2017. “And, trust me, there’s a lot of really cool things that happen here every day.”

February’s rally, which included special guests from the Nebraska Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP), was extra special. NAESP presented York with the National Distinguished Principal from Nebraska Award.

“Surreal is probably the right word,” York said of the ceremony. “It was really cool receiving the award in front of my peers, but I tell you what, having the kids there and genuinely excited for me, that was really neat.”

Everyone in attendance last Friday, York said, played a part in the accolade, which went to Gordon Elementary Principal Casey Slama last year. That was the message he shared with staff shortly after learning he’d been chosen as Nebraska’s NDP.

“None of this happens without a bunch of committed educators who are buying what I’m selling and rowing in the same direction,” he said in a staff meeting. “O’Neill Elementary School is full of great people, whether it’s teachers, custodians, paras, cooks, secretaries, and especially the kids. We’ve got kids who want to do their best and to grow up to be awesome adults someday.”

During the celebration, York told his students that he doesn’t look at his work as work. He doesn’t wake up and punch the clock. He wakes up and goes to school. It’s a simple shift in perspective, but it’s a powerful one mechanized by equal parts purpose and fulfillment.

“I love that, because I get to be with them,” York said. “And there’s no better place to be.”

Q: NPSA has been to O’Neill Elementary before, and it is, without a doubt, a special place. Can you tell me about your culture there and the foundational beliefs that help you lead a building?

A: I want every kid that comes into this building to have someone that they know has their back at all times. We are not flawless humans, and they are not flawless humans. And we need to know that it’s okay not to be perfect and that everybody has good days and bad days. But, ultimately, when you come to school you bring your “A” game, you do the best you can, and we’re going to be here to support you in whatever way that matters.

Q: You’ll carry this distinction for a year, being the NDP from Nebraska. What message will you use this platform to share?

A: I will sing it from the mountaintops to anybody that will listen. Not only are O’Neill Public Schools great for kids, but every public school in Nebraska is great for kids.

There are thousands of educators who go to school every day with the goal of doing what is best for kids. If I’m allowed to talk about that, I could ramble on for hours. I don’t know if I’ve ever met an educator who wasn’t there for the right reasons.

We’re a community here. We’re here to raise our future leaders, and it’s not just a school, it’s the entire community, and we’re going to work together to do it.

Q: You had your family in attendance, how neat was it to share this experience and that moment with them?

A: My mom and dad came up from York. I’m from York, Jim York from York. A couple of my in-laws came, and then my children all attend O’Neill Elementary, so they were there. Actually, three of my four children happened to be part of this month’s celebration, which was kind of cool. My daughter played a piece on her piano. She was one of four students who performed something they’ve done in music class this month. That was really cool.

Q: I know it meant a lot to you to have some colleagues there from NAESP. For a principal, how important is that statewide network?

A: That support is huge. This is my 10th year as an administrator, and when I was younger (I like to still feel like I’m young), but when I was younger than I am now, I would sit there and watch these really distinguished principals get up there and talk about all the great things happening in their schools, and I remember thinking, ‘Man, I hope someday that I can be that type of person and that I can lead a building like that.’

I’ve had a couple of friends who have earned this award in the past, and that was so cool to see, because they’d earned it. They deserved it. Being Nebraska’s NDP for a year is a huge honor. The best part about it was how genuinely excited people were for me, just like I was for others in the past and will be in the future.

I’ve made some really great friends in this profession. There’s days when you want to celebrate, so you give them a call and talk about something going on. And there’s days when you just need to run something by someone, so you give them a call and you listen. That network is so important.