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A Southern belle in the Southwest re-energizes school district

A Southern belle in the Southwest re-energizes school district

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Arleen Kennedy discusses senior T-shirt design with college students at St. David Excessive School on Oct. 24, 2018 (Photograph by Hannah Dahl/Arizona Sonora Information Service)

In a one-horse city simply north of the Mexican border, the place African-People make up lower than 1 % of the inhabitants, Arleen Kennedy stands out in extra methods than one. She’s daring, assured, and never afraid of change — even when that change is packing up and shifting 2,300 miles throughout the nation.

Regardless of being hundreds of miles from house, Kennedy is a southern belle at coronary heart. She’s refined (but animated), courteous and type, (she provides hugs, not handshakes) and loves candy tea, even when she’s needed to sweeten it herself since she moved out west.

“I consider myself to be a southern belle because I am very gentile in certain ways,” Kennedy stated. “I don’t drink, smoke, party, or do any of those things that could create (a) negative aura. I think a female should always hold herself to the highest standard.”

New in city

Kennedy was employed in July as the new superintendent of St. David Unified School District.

Up till a number of months in the past, she’d by no means even been to Arizona. She hasn’t discovered the adjustment from the South to the Southwest to be troublesome, however hints of her southern roots nonetheless linger: the jar of pecans on her desk, the South Carolina State Bulldogs pennant hanging on her wall, the shrimp thawing on her kitchen counter for that night time’s gumbo dinner.

Kennedy was working in an city school district in Baltimore when she heard about the job opening in Cochise County.

“I felt like this would be a learning experience, another opportunity for me to grow and develop in education,” stated Kennedy, who’s  pursuing a doctorate in city instructional management from Morgan State College.

Fortuitously for her, the St. David School Board-led hiring committee felt the similar method, providing her the job after just one interview by way of Zoom.

“Ms. Kennedy has brought a lot of good energy and different philosophies to our school district,” stated Andrew Brogan, principal of St. David Unified Faculties.

Her earlier school district couldn’t have been extra totally different from St. David. The Baltimore district was utterly city and had over 88,000 college students, almost all of which have been African-American. However regardless that Kennedy’s doctoral focus is on city schooling, she quickly discovered this was not her glass of candy tea.

“I was miserable as all outdoors there,” Kennedy stated. “You can’t go to work every day wondering what’s going to be the next complaint.”

Shifting from a metropolitan metropolis to the tiny city of St. David, inhabitants 2,819, can be fairly a tradition shock for most individuals, however Kennedy’s southern upbringing has helped her really feel proper at house.

“Nearly all of my teaching experience and education has been in a town smaller than this,” stated Kennedy, who spent eight years educating social research in North, a city in South Carolina with lower than 700 individuals.

The previous elementary school constructing on Oct. 24, 2018, in St. David, Ariz. The unique school constructing was constructed in 1938 and continues to be used for some courses in the present day. (Photograph by Hannah Dahl/ Arizona Sonora Information Service)

Rural school districts are sometimes criticized for favoring private relationships over professionalism, however Kennedy has discovered a approach to flip this right into a constructive and highly effective educating device.

“The one thing that I love about small towns is that family-community type of relationship that you have,” Kennedy stated. “If you can effectively draw the line between the professional and personal side, the fact that you’ve known the parent and child for so long gives you an added edge.”

Upsetting the apple cart

Kennedy would wish that added edge in the weeks following her appointment, as she had simply joined a school district plagued with a number of challenges. St. David confronted points with nepotism, low scores, and insufficient funding. However Kennedy was not afraid to carry robust conversations.

“I think one thing that everyone knows about me is I don’t do fear,” Kennedy stated. “You will not scare me, I am not one of those ones that will run from a challenge.”

One in every of the first challenges she needed to confront was integrating right into a group the place most individuals had recognized one another for years.

Throughout her first weeks in workplace, Kennedy held 4 conferences with mother and father, school employees, clergy leaders and group members to assist everybody get to know her. Every group met individually with Kennedy, and the former administration was excluded. In response to Kennedy, this was meant to facilitate open dialog amongst the attendees about their considerations and wishes for the way forward for the school district.

“When I got here, some of the concerns were that school employees and their families were the only ones that would be employees,” Kennedy stated.

In small cities the place the choice pool for job candidates is already restricted, nepotism is a difficult matter to deal with. Kennedy’s answer has been to permit everybody to interview, however solely choose these people who find themselves absolutely certified for the job.

“If you’re only thinking about making your family richer and not thinking about the kids, then I have a problem, cause that’s not what all of this is about,” Kennedy stated.

Cheerleader at coronary heart

Falling enrollment numbers have been one other hurdle Kennedy tackled head-on. In the previous, low scores have haunted St. David, sparking rumors of incorporating into Benson, a rival school district with greater scores and extra college students. Kennedy’s strategy to this drawback comes from her days as a cheerleader.

“People think of St. David as the blip between Benson and Tombstone,” Kennedy stated. “But I was a cheerleader, so I know how to say ‘Bis-boom-bah, here we is!’ You asked for quality education and options, I’m gonna give you what you asked for.”

The doorway to St. David Faculties on Oct. 24, 2018, in St. David, Ariz. The district consists of an elementary, center and excessive school. (Photograph by Hannah Dahl/ Arizona Sonora Information Service)

This yr, St. David Excessive School’s score went up from final yr’s B to an A, and the elementary school score rose to a excessive B. These scores are curated by the Arizona State Division of Schooling and mirror the high quality of schooling college students are receiving.

“St. David is already a great school with a lot of quality things going on,” Kennedy stated. “I can see us becoming an all-A school district next year.”

Considered one of Kennedy’s objectives this semester has been to offer each scholar with a pill for digital studying. To realize this imaginative and prescient, she was proactive in acquiring grants to assist offset the value of the tablets.

When the sheriff introduced in a gathering that Cochise County had some extra cash obtainable for a grant, Kennedy reduce him off earlier than he might end chatting with request it for the school.

“The county superintendent laughs at me all the time and says, ‘You really are something for these people to behold, you’re a breath of fresh air,’” Kennedy recounted. “Am I upsetting the apple cart of the other side of what it means to be in a small town? Yeah. Am I worried about it? Nope.”

To her shock, Kennedy has skilled little or no pushback from the group.

“Sometimes I go home saying, ‘I know I’m gonna get a phone call about this,’ but I don’t get it,” Kennedy stated. “I think people can see that the decisions I’m making are not just to be arbitrary and capricious. They’re about what’s in the best interest of children.”

Unlikely beginnings

Although she’s spent half of her life working in schooling, Kennedy didn’t initially plan to have a profession in the classroom. Her undergraduate diploma was in political science pre-law, and she or he had goals of turning into a lawyer.

Upon graduating from South Carolina State College, she acquired an invite to review regulation at Howard College in Washington D.C. Nevertheless, she wanted to save lots of up sufficient cash to pay for tuition, so she returned to her hometown of Charleston, South Carolina, to work in its place instructor.

“My high school principal was the principal of the very first school I subbed in and she told me on the first day of work, ‘Arleen, you’re not going to go to law school, you’re going to become an educator, and I’m going to make sure of that,’” Kennedy stated.

Her principal was proper. As an alternative of returning to regulation school, Kennedy accepted a suggestion to show full-time and enrolled at The Citadel Army School, incomes her first grasp’s diploma in educating in secondary social research.

Over the course of the subsequent 10 years, Kennedy taught social research in small school districts all through the South. Her experiences in these cities helped her regulate to life in St. David.

“I’m actually getting what I miss from the South here in St. David,” Kennedy stated. “I’m used to strong family values, strong religious practice, and being who you say you are.”

Curriculum with compassion

Kennedy has already shaped a particular bond with lots of the youngsters in her district. College students often enter Kennedy’s workplace by means of the aspect door to speak together with her about what’s happening in their life. Whether or not they’re discussing the design of the senior T-shirt or asking for a brand new operating monitor to exchange the previous dust one round the soccer area, Kennedy makes the time to pay attention.

“The kids believe that I genuinely care about what happens, and I do,” she stated. “I’ve become that person that’s easy for them to come to.”

Her reputation extends past simply the college students.

Arleen Kennedy at St. David Faculties on Oct. 24, 2018. (Photograph by Hannah Dahl/Arizona Sonora Information Service)

“The word for Ms. Kennedy would be transformational leadership,” stated Jacqui Clay, superintendent of Cochise County School District. “She’s not afraid to take risks, she shares her leadership with the community and other teachers, and she’s very inclusive, which is important in leadership.”

Kennedy’s educating philosophy is straightforward. When she’s making a choice for a scholar, she asks herself if she would make the similar determination if the youngster was her personal son.

“Who am I to say you can’t be the next Michael Jordan? I want to give each child the option to become whatever they dream of being,” Kennedy stated.

This analogy has a particular significance for Kennedy. In 1999, she had the alternative to satisfy Michael Jordan after profitable the Jordan Fundamentals Grant for her city’s school.

To obtain the grant, she designed a complete lesson plan targeted on educating “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” a e-book that was banned in South Carolina at the time. Her lesson concerned each topic, from the science behind choosing cotton, to woodworking, the place they constructed an precise log cabin that’s nonetheless standing at the school at the moment.

“After I won the competition, I used the award money to buy every kid a copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and personally handed each of them out after school,” Kennedy stated.

She takes an identical strategy in her educating and administrating as we speak. Her focus is on giving college students all the instruments they have to be profitable in the profession path they select.

“I don’t want St. David to be titled as just a ‘vocational’ or an ‘AP’ school, I want us to be a well-rounded school that can prepare students for whatever they’re interested in, whether that’s a vocational career or attending college,” Kennedy stated.

Peace of thoughts

The transfer to Arizona has introduced some much-needed sunshine to her life.

“I tell everybody I’m not going anywhere, because I would be a fool to walk away from this peace of mind,” Kennedy stated. “I am a genuinely happy person.”

When she’s not at school, Kennedy enjoys mendacity on a hammock and gazing at the mountains in her yard in Sierra Vista, or driving to San Diego to spend a weekend in entrance of the ocean.

An important issues in her life take prime precedence: her son, who’s getting ready to start out school in January, her service inside her church, and her ongoing path to self-improvement.

“It’s important to me that what I project to people is what I really am. Everyone should be natural in their own skin,” Kennedy stated. “I’m very comfortable in my own skin and that makes my life real, real happy.”

Hannah Dahl is a reporter for Arizona Sonora Information, a service from the School of Journalism with the College of Arizona. Contact her at [email protected] 

Click on right here for a shortened Phrase model of this story and high-resolution pictures.