A #PrincipalPrideChi Shout-Out: Ellen Kennedy, Richards High School

It’s Principal Appreciation Week in Chicago, and I have a few principals to celebrate. But Ellen Kennedy’s work at Richards Career Academy is already meaningful to me, and she’s just getting off the ground.

For the last 15 years, I have lived three blocks west of Richards Career Academy in Back of the Yards. For many years, Richards has had a fabulous culinary arts program that stayed strong despite many challenges to the school as a whole. To be honest, I have seen bright kids go to Richards and lose their way, getting caught up in pregnancy or gangs, and dropping out. Years ago, I would see kids sneaking out of Richards or hanging out the windows in the spring, when it gets warm and students get antsy for the year to be over. For most of the time I have lived here in Back of the Yards, I have helped young people and their families find options other than Richards.

Thanks to Principal Ellen Kennedy’s leadership, my attitude is changing. Kennedy came to Richards after working at Tilden High as assistant principal with Principal Maurice Swinney, who was just named Chief Equity Officer for Chicago Public Schools. At Tilden, Kennedy had the opportunity to connect with the Network for College Success (NCS) and to learn about a number of best practices for supporting kids through high school and college. She and Swinney put them to work at Tilden, and she answered the call when Richards suddenly needed a new school leader in May 2017.

NCS has been a huge asset to Kennedy in the transition. “They offer the best professional development I have experienced as a school leader,” she says. She appreciates their access to data and research, the bright, like-minded community of support willing to help her apply research insights to the particular circumstances at Richards, and their relentless focus on understanding how race affects schools and changing those effects to create equity for Black and Brown students.

Kennedy also has her eyes on the nitty-gritty. This year, Richards is launching a block schedule and started the year with only two teacher vacancies thanks to support from the Opportunity Schools Program, which helped her find three new teachers. They were featured on Chicago Tonight for their enthusiasm and preparation. She is working hard to connect with the larger community and is her school’s biggest cheerleader through her Twitter account. She doesn’t just share the usual stuff about sports–she shares the cool things teachers do in their classrooms, too.

Even in its toughest times, Richards has had some amazing student successes, from Gates Millennium Scholar Demareo Jones, to master-coffee-roaster-in-training Eduardo Rodriguez. With Kennedy at the helm, I look forward to seeing more great success stories like these coming from Richards.

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Maureen Kelleher

Chicago Unheard blog manager Maureen Kelleher also serves as a senior writer and editor at brightbeam, a nonprofit network of education activists demanding a better education and brighter future for every child. Before joining the brightbeam team, she spent a decade as a reporter, blogger and policy analyst. Her work has been published across the education world, from Education Week to the Center for American Progress. A former high school English teacher, she is also the proud mom of a middle-schooler. Find her on Twitter at @KelleherMaureen.

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