It is not only an award and a prize. It is a challenge.
That is how Verone Kennedy sees it, anyway.
“It was humbling, but it also provided a sense of responsibility,” Verone Kennedy said during a recent interview with this newspaper.
The veteran Brooklyn educator has been named as one of the 2008 recipients of The Fund for the City of New York’s Sloan Public Service Award. The Sloan Awards are the leading independent honor for city workers, recognizing extraordinary commitment, service and accomplishments.
Verone Kennedy, who has worked for the Department of Education in almost every capacity for the past 21 years, was chosen from a pool of 250,000 city employees.
He admits that when he was first nominated for the Sloan Award he didn’t realize its magnitude. An online search revealed he was in tremendous company. Previous winners included distinguished educators that Kennedy had looked up to.
“To even be on a list with these individuals, it just really took my breath away,” Kennedy said.
“It made me peddle a little harder. It said to me, Verone, there’s a lot still to be done.”
It is an inspiring way of interpreting such recognition—but those who know this man would expect nothing less. In his two decades of city service, Verone Kennedy has earned a reputation as being relentless, hungry for results and passionate about the futures of his students.
Kennedy now works as a Network Leader in the education department’s Learning Support Organization, a position he accepted about a year ago.
In this role he supports 18 troubled schools across Brooklyn that risk losing their funding or closing.
Kennedy works with principals in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn Heights, Williamsburg, Canarsie and Flatbush. Kennedy and his team help schools with almost every facet of their operation, from leveraging resources and budgets to improving communications and even managing student behavioral problems.
Verone Kennedy has a firsthand understanding of the challenges these principals face.
After completing training with the first class at the city’s Leadership Academy—a rigorous program for aspiring principals—Kennedy was offered the opportunity to lead a new school in his native Crown Heights.
It was a tough assignment—only 18 percent of students entering M.S. 584 were reading at grade level and principals were being held more accountable for student achievement.
During his nearly four years at the school, Kennedy and his band of teachers placed a strong emphasis on the emotional and social development of their students.
Kennedy also emphasized literacy. He started a reading program called “You Can’t Be Caught Without a Book” and even started a book club for parents.
He also launched a cultural enrichment program that sent kids to Broadway plays, museums and college campuses.
Not only did test scores improve, but students also started to have a better sense of the world and their place in it. They began to “believe, then achieve”—one of their principal’s favorite mottoes.
Kennedy’s philosophies on education were shaped by many of his own life experiences.
He was born and raised in Crown Heights, which at the time was marred by drugs, violence and racial tensions. His dad ran a dry-cleaning business and his mom was school guidance counselor.
By his own admission, the young Verone Kennedy was an underachiever who hung around with the wrong crowd.
His parents “scrimped and saved” to send him and siblings to private school because public school was “too dangerous.” They also made sure their son was exposed to all parts of the city and would insist he ride the Culture Loop Bus.
Later in high school Kennedy had an art teacher who recognized and encouraged his potential. His grades improved and he eventually enrolled in college.
Kennedy’s first job out of college was as an urban park ranger. He developed educational programs and learned how much he loved to teach.
It was during this time he noticed an educational disparity between good and not-so-good neighborhoods terms of their access to resources, the quality of teachers and the condition of buildings.
Kennedy wanted to narrow the chasm and figured that working inside the system would give him the best chance to do so.
During the following 21 years, he worked in just about every position in education, including teacher’s assistant, math coach, youth mentoring director and staff developer.
Schools Chancellor Joel Klein described Kennedy as a role model for students and educators and said his “talent and dedication have improved the lives of a generation of this city’s children.”
But Verone Kennedy never sought such accolades. He says despite his 6 feet 4 inch figure, he “always tried to stay small.”
“It’s about not looking for anything in return, but wanting to improve student achievement,’ he said.
When asked if the inequities that first inspired his career in education still exist, Kennedy said the city was “moving in a direction that is more equitable.”
He said he was encouraged to see new buildings being erected in neighborhoods that had long struggled with school overcrowding.
He also said principals were being given more authority over curriculum and budgeting, and that this was having a positive impact.
“I think we’re in a better place now,” said Kennedy, who now lives in Queens but firmly states that Brooklyn is his “home.”
While he’s now working as an administrator, it may not be where he stays forever. Kennedy says he misses daily interaction with school children “terribly” and hopes to one day return to work as a teacher or principal.
“At some point, I want to be in the classroom again. My love is working with students. It’s what puts the biggest smile on my face.”