• U.S.

The King of Crown Heights

7 minute read
Caroline Kennedy

All my life people have told me that my father changed their lives. They got involved in public service, in the Peace Corps and in their communities because he asked them. To me, the generation he inspired is perhaps his greatest legacy. And they in turn have inspired generations that followed. None of us need look too far to find things we want to improve or people who need our help. But it isn’t always easy to make the time or the effort. So the people who dedicate themselves to others can help the rest of us discover how and what we have to give.

Like many New Yorkers after Sept. 11, I asked myself what I could do to help strengthen the city in which I live–and, for me, the answer was to get involved in the effort to improve New York City’s public schools. As a society, there is nothing more important than how we raise and educate our children.

Education begins in the classroom, but schools need an entire community–students, teachers, parents, local businesses and neighbors–to work together to help children succeed. Most of all, schools need a leader, and that is why in New York City, one of the cornerstones of school reform has been a training program for a new generation of principals. It is called the NYC Leadership Academy, and its first graduates are now leading some of the city’s most challenging schools.

One of those graduates is Verone Kennedy. Although coincidentally we have the same last name, our lives could not have been more different. Verone was born in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, a tough neighborhood best known for its racial tension in the early 1990s. His father ran a dry-cleaning store and struggled to break even. His mother was the director of a social-services center. “Lots of people had guns or knives,” he says. “You had to think twice about where you were going and what you were wearing.” All he will say about the schools of his youth is that they were “unbelievable,” adding, “I lost quite a few friends,” including one who was killed at age 12 for a pair of glasses. Verone had little interest in school. One of his teachers predicted he would “end up dead or in jail.”

But when Verone was in 11th grade, “Mrs. M,” an art teacher, told him he had an aptitude for sketching and painting. He began spending time in her classroom, working on his portfolio. By the end of the year, he began to believe for the first time that he was good at something. His confidence spilled over into his academic subjects. With a lot of support from Mrs. M and his college-educated mother, and after another session of summer school, Kennedy decided to go to college.

For two years afterwards, he worked as an urban park ranger, a position that enabled him to conduct educational programs at schools in some of New York’s better neighborhoods–and in its worst. “They were totally different,” he says. “The quality of the teaching, the amount of books … the inequities were so clear that it forced me to think about what I wanted to do with my life.”

He became a teacher and worked in just about every position in education–teacher’s aide; staff developer; math coach; and sixth-grade teacher in a self-contained class where he taught social studies, science, math and English language arts. Along the way, he was recruited to work in some of the city’s best schools. But when offered a position in his old neighborhood, he realized that that was where he could make the biggest difference. “We each have a responsibility and an obligation to better the lives of as many people as we can,” says Kennedy. “There is greatness in those kids.”

Becoming a principal seemed the most effective way to accomplish his goals, and in 2003 Kennedy was accepted into the first class at the new Leadership Academy. The program was intense–more than a full year of rigorous training in how to be a good leader, motivating staff, analyzing student test data and dealing with parents, while apprenticing with a mentor principal in an existing school. After graduating with 76 others, Kennedy was offered the opportunity to start a new middle school, the Granville T. Woods School for Science and Technology, known as MS 584, in one of the poorest and most isolated areas of Crown Heights. At a time when principals were being held increasingly accountable for student test scores and only 18% of the entering students were reading at grade level, it was among the city’s most difficult assignments.

For Kennedy, leadership has two critical components–example and teamwork. He is one of a relatively small number of black male principals who can serve as role models to a student population that is overwhelmingly black or Hispanic. “These kids don’t see themselves past 21,” he says. “I know that for them to see me here helps them believe that they can succeed.”

Over the past 2 1/2 years, Kennedy and his team have placed a strong emphasis on literacy and on the social and emotional development of their students. He has started a reading program called You Can’t Be Caught Without a Book, because, he says, “if we are going to get students thinking, we need to get them reading.”

Kennedy searches for titles that will connect to his students’ own life experiences and plans to progress to the classics. He says the first book that grabbed him was Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, and he looks forward to reading it with his students. In the meantime, Kennedy has started book clubs for parents and Saturday field trips to colleges, museums, movies and Broadway shows. He’s trying to find a way to send students studying Spanish to Spain, and he runs a weekly group for about 25 kids who are having trouble in school.

All of these efforts are intended to heighten the students’ sense of connection with the world around them and encourage them to believe in themselves and to make ambitious plans for their own futures. Says Kennedy: “If you can’t envision it, you can’t work toward it. We talk about college here, not just high school.” “Believe and Achieve” is one of his mottoes.

At MS 584, these efforts seem to be making a difference in the lives of the children. School is safe, attendance is high, and a sense of community is growing. The school graduated its first eighth-grade class last spring.

Kennedy credits his team of veteran educators, young teachers, Teach for America recruits and a parent coordinator. “No one can work in isolation,” he says. “My job is to get voices from the community and to keep the team motivated. I see our work like a chessboard. Each child is our king. We have to work to protect him and checkmate the forces of failure. This world is so harsh to children. I see myself as the keeper of the dream that is in every child, and I know we can succeed. That is my blessed hope.”

Caroline Kennedy, an attorney and author, is vice chair of the New York City Fund for Public Schools. To learn more about supporting those who make a difference, visit time.com/powerofone

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