Principled: Verone Kennedy M.S.Ed. '00
Between classes, the halls of the Granville T. Woods School for Science and Technology—also known as M.S. 584—look like those of a typical middle school: empty, fluorescent-lit, with shiny floors and brightly-colored walls. Diagrammed reports on the human digestive system have been carefully arranged on a bulletin board. Another showcases poetry from a language arts class: “My heart is strong./powerful and beautiful./My heart is strong.” What distinguishes the Woods School and the leadership of principal Verone Kennedy M.S. Ed. ’00, though, is the school’s unofficial motto, visible in multiple places: “Believe, then achieve at 584.”
photo by Andrew Lichtenstein ’88
In 2004, Kennedy established the middle school, located in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, fresh from his stint at the New York Leadership Academy, a rigorous program for New York City principals in the city’s most economically challenged neighborhoods. Kennedy and his team of educators focus on the holistic development—social, academic, physical, psychological, and ethical—of each and every one of the 300 children who walk the school’s halls.
“A lot of these kids are raising themselves,” says Kennedy. “They are walking around as big decision makers in their own lives.”
To address this issue, students meet every day in small groups to discuss real dilemmas they are facing—for example, whether or not to join a gang. They come away with the message that everything they do has a consequence, Kennedy explains, which encourages students to be more thoughtful about everyday choices.
Based on his own experiences growing up in Crown Heights, Kennedy is a firm believer that all students should have a comprehension of the world that is “greater than the five block radius between school and home.” He is committed to providing new opportunities for students, such as trips to the Harlem Studio or the Brooklyn Museum. During this year’s Scholar’s Week—where students create their own curriculum based on their interests—students experienced everything from extreme urban hiking to building electrical circuits to exploring careers.
First and foremost, though, Kennedy emphasizes keeping the culture of the school alive and positive: “We have to make kids want to try.” He speaks from experience. A self-described underachiever in high school, Kennedy had a pivotal experience in an art class: A teacher who knew nothing of his history focused instead on his natural talents—and the impact of her positive attention was profound. “She placed a real value on my work,” he says.
From there, Kennedy made a conscious decision about the path he wanted to take in life, enrolling in the State University of New York at Old Westbury. One summer, his seasonal job as an urban park ranger brought him to classrooms across the city, where he found his true calling as a teacher. Since then, he has worn many different hats in the educational system, including as a teacher’s aide, staff consultant, and math coach.
Kennedy applied to SLC’s Art of Teaching graduate program after hearing his sister, Vandalyn Kennedy M.S. Ed. ’98, speak highly of her work at the College. In his first interview with program director Sara Wilford ’72, they spoke about “understanding the importance of looking at children as individuals and seeing them for who they are and what they bring to the table.” The Art of Teaching program resonated with Kennedy’s beliefs about turning students into lifelong learners: “The more you learn,” he explains, “the more you are capable of learning.”
By all accounts, Kennedy, who was profiled in Time earlier this year by Caroline Kennedy, is succeeding. His school’s overall test scores have increased every year, and this year, it had the biggest recorded improvement in math scores in the district. But perhaps even more telling are the testimonials he receives. This year, to celebrate his 40th birthday, his former students returned to tell him about the impact his dedication has had on their lives. One student recalled “the feeling of being loved and accepted” in Kennedy’s classroom. From the bright faces of the students today who flood the halls when the bell rings, it appears that not much has changed.
—Suzanne Guillette MFA ’05