A Southern belle in the Southwest re-energizes school district

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

In a one-horse town just north of the Mexican border, where African-Americans make up less than 1 percent of the population, Arleen Kennedy stands out in more ways than one. She’s bold, confident, and not afraid of change — even if that change is packing up and moving 2,300 miles across the country.

Despite being thousands of miles from home, Kennedy is a southern belle at heart. She’s refined (yet animated), courteous and kind, (she gives hugs, not handshakes) and loves sweet tea, even if she’s had 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 said. “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 town

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

Up until a few months ago, she’d never even been to Arizona. She hasn’t found the adjustment from the South to the Southwest to be difficult, but hints of her southern roots still 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’s gumbo dinner.

Kennedy was working in an urban 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,” said Kennedy, who is  pursuing a doctorate in urban educational leadership from Morgan State University.

Fortunately for her, the St. David School Board-led hiring committee felt the same way, offering her the job after only one interview via Zoom.

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

Her previous school district couldn’t have been more different from St. David. The Baltimore district was completely urban and had over 88,000 students, nearly all of which were African-American. But even though Kennedy’s doctoral focus is on urban education, she soon found this was not her glass of sweet tea.

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

Moving from a metropolitan city to the tiny town of St. David, population 2,819, would be quite a culture shock for most people, but Kennedy’s southern upbringing has helped her feel right at home.

“Nearly all of my teaching experience and education has been in a town smaller than this,” said Kennedy, who spent eight years teaching social studies in North, a town in South Carolina with less than 700 people.

The old elementary school building on Oct. 24, 2018, in St. David, Ariz. The original school building was constructed in 1938 and is still used for some classes today. (Photo by Hannah Dahl/ Arizona Sonora News Service)

Rural school districts are often criticized for favoring personal relationships over professionalism, but Kennedy has found a way to turn this into a positive and powerful teaching tool.

“The one thing that I love about small towns is that family-community type of relationship that you have,” Kennedy said. “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 need that added edge in the weeks following her appointment, as she had just joined a school district plagued with a host of challenges. St. David faced issues with nepotism, low ratings, and inadequate funding. But Kennedy was not afraid to hold tough conversations.

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

One of the first challenges she had to confront was integrating into a community where most people had known each other for years.

During her first weeks in office, Kennedy held four meetings with parents, school staff, clergy leaders and community members to help everyone get to know her. Each group met separately with Kennedy, and the former administration was excluded. According to Kennedy, this was intended to facilitate open conversation among the attendees about their concerns and desires for the future of 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 said.

In small towns where the selection pool for job candidates is already limited, nepotism is a tricky topic to address. Kennedy’s solution has been to allow everyone to interview, but only select those people who are fully qualified 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 said.

Cheerleader at heart

Falling enrollment numbers were another hurdle Kennedy tackled head-on. In the past, low ratings have haunted St. David, sparking rumors of incorporating into Benson, a rival school district with higher ratings and more students. Kennedy’s approach to this problem comes from her days as a cheerleader.

“People think of St. David as the blip between Benson and Tombstone,” Kennedy said. “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 entrance to St. David Schools on Oct. 24, 2018, in St. David, Ariz. The district includes an elementary, middle and high school. (Photo by Hannah Dahl/ Arizona Sonora News Service)

This year, St. David High School’s rating went up from last year’s B to an A, and the elementary school rating rose to a high B. These ratings are curated by the Arizona State Department of Education and reflect the quality of education students are receiving.

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

One of Kennedy’s goals this semester has been to provide every student with a tablet for virtual learning. To achieve this vision, she was proactive in obtaining grants to help offset the cost of the tablets.

When the sheriff announced in a meeting that Cochise County had some excess money available for a grant, Kennedy cut him off before he could finish speaking to 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 surprise, Kennedy has experienced very little pushback from the community.

“Sometimes I go home saying, ‘I know I’m gonna get a phone call about this,’ but I don’t get it,” Kennedy said. “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

Though she’s spent half of her life working in education, Kennedy didn’t originally plan to have a career in the classroom. Her undergraduate degree was in political science pre-law, and she had dreams of becoming a lawyer.

Upon graduating from South Carolina State University, she received an invitation to study law at Howard University in Washington D.C. However, she needed to save up enough money to pay for tuition, so she returned to her hometown of Charleston, South Carolina, to work as a substitute teacher.

“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 said.

Her principal was right. Instead of returning to law school, Kennedy accepted an offer to teach full-time and enrolled at The Citadel Military College, earning her first master’s degree in teaching in secondary social studies.

Over the course of the next 10 years, Kennedy taught social studies in small school districts throughout the South. Her experiences in these towns helped her adjust to life in St. David.

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

Curriculum with compassion

Kennedy has already formed a special bond with many of the children in her district. Students frequently enter Kennedy’s office through the side door to talk with her about what’s going on in their life. Whether they’re discussing the design of the senior T-shirt or asking for a new running track to replace the old dirt one around the football field, Kennedy makes the time to listen.

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

Her popularity extends beyond just the students.

Arleen Kennedy at St. David Schools on Oct. 24, 2018. (Photo by Hannah Dahl/Arizona Sonora News Service)

“The word for Ms. Kennedy would be transformational leadership,” said 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 teaching philosophy is simple. When she’s making a decision for a student, she asks herself if she would make the same decision if the child was her own 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 said.

This analogy has a special significance for Kennedy. In 1999, she had the opportunity to meet Michael Jordan after winning the Jordan Fundamentals Grant for her town’s school.

To receive the grant, she designed a comprehensive lesson plan focused on teaching “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” a book that was banned in South Carolina at the time. Her lesson involved every subject, from the science behind picking cotton, to woodworking, where they built an actual log cabin that’s still standing at the school today.

“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 said.

She takes a similar approach in her teaching and administrating today. Her focus is on giving students all the tools they need to be successful in the career path they choose.

“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 said.

Peace of mind

The move to Arizona has brought 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 said. “I am a genuinely happy person.”

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

The most important things in her life take top priority: her son, who is preparing to start college in January, her service within 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 said. “I’m very comfortable in my own skin and that makes my life real, real happy.”

Hannah Dahl is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at hdahl@email.arizona.edu. 

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