Whitney M. Young Magnet High School Joyce Kenner envisions her successor as someone who is committed to running the school of selective enrollment for several years, attends most student activities, and maintains an open-door policy.
That person shouldn’t have a dollar sign in their eyes, she said.
“If you’re applying for this job for money, you have to forget about it. And that’s the honest truth to God,” Kenner, 65, told the Tribune. “I didn’t even know how much money I was making until a few years ago. Sounds awful, but I didn’t. I did not care. I mean, I knew I would make enough money to do what I had to do, but it’s not about the money.
Kenner, who earns about $175,000 a year, announced last week that she was retiring after about 27 years at the helm of Chicago’s first public high school. Kenner and five other CPS directors who have the same salary are the highest paid of all directors in the district, according to March CPS data. The job might be the most sought-after job in Chicago public schools this summer, as the Near West Side school is considered one of the best high schools in the country.
Whoever is chosen as Whitney Young’s fourth principal has big shoes to fill, as Kenner fans say she leaves behind a legacy of academic excellence, putting students first and serving as the No. 1 of the school on almost all sidelines.
“Whitney Young, how successful it has been, to attract the faculty and staff that we have, the performance of the school, our test scores, where these kids end up being accepted into colleges, she’s the strength driving force behind a lot of this,” Brad Vesprini, chairman of the local Whitney Young School Board, said of Kenner. “So it’s hard to think about it without her, because she’s been such an integral part of the institution for so long.”
The task of choosing the new leader of Whitney Young rests with the LSC, which is empowered to form a Senior Selection Committee which may be comprised of LSC members and non-Council members. The announcement of Kenner’s retirement coincided with the election last week of a new LSC who will sit in July, although the current and future boards will be nearly identical.
Vesprini said the timeline for the process is still being worked out. It is an involved undertaking which includes writing and posting an advertisement for the position; review resumes; interview candidates; reference checks; hold a candidates’ forum; selection of finalists and vote for contract award.
Whitney Young hasn’t gone through this process since the summer of 1995, when Bill Clinton was serving his first term as president and Michael Jordan was filming the original “Space Jam.” Kenner had been Whitney Young’s assistant manager for five years at the time. She took the top job when then-Principal Powhatan Collins accepted a CPS regional role.
Both the late Collins and the founding director of Whitney Young, the late Bernarr Dawson, were selected prior to the election of the first LSCs in 1989. Like Dawson and Collins, Kenner worked elsewhere at CPS before coming to Whitney Young, and like them, Kenner is black. . Kenner said the next director should also be black.
“I’m not saying (that person) has to be black, but I just think an African-American person is more capable right now of dealing with the social issues that affect our schools, our country, and our city,” he said. said Kenner.
According to CPS, in its more than 500 district-run schools, 44 percent of principals are black; 32% are white; about 19% are Hispanic; and 1% are Asian.
Whitney Young’s commitment to ethnic and cultural diversity dates back to its 1975 opening in the Near West Side community. It was one of the first CPS schools to use racial quotas. The student population was originally to be 40% black, 40% white, 10% Latino, 5% “other” races, and 5% at the discretion of the principal. The Tribune reported at the time that Whitney Young was trying to set the standard for quality, integrated education.
The CPS abandoned the use of racial quotas for admissions to magnet and selective enrollment schools more than a decade ago. This year, of Whitney Young’s 2,100 students, 28 percent are Hispanic, 25 percent are white, 22.5 percent are Asian, and nearly 18 percent are black.
“These are my babies,” Kenner said. “And I will tell them that you have a black mother. I have white kids and black kids and Asian kids and Latinx kids, and I’m their mother. I happen to be African American.
Kenner is from Dayton, Ohio, and a triplet (each triplet has a name that starts with J). She was a cheerleader at Ohio University and taught health and physical education at schools in her hometown. After working for Reverend Jesse Jackson’s Operation PUSH in Chicago, Kenner joined CPS in 1984 as a placement coordinator at King High School on the South Side.
She became Whitney Young’s assistant manager in 1990, according to CPS records. In discussing his legacy, Kenner points to outstanding performances by varsity teams in decathlon, basketball, chess, debate, lacrosse, baseball, volleyball, and tennis.
“Whitney Young has always been a top college powerhouse, but I wanted to make sure we’re a powerhouse in everything. I’m very competitive. I like to win. I tell the kids, ‘Look, (even) if we don’t win, we’ll look good.’ So if you look across the board, even my robotics team looks great, they have T-shirts and jackets,” Kenner said.
“I wanted to be able to bring academics and extracurriculars to equal success and build a whole child. That has always been my philosophy and my goal, and I think we succeeded in doing that,” she said.
Senior Tova Kaplan, president of the class of 2022, recalled being drawn to Kenner’s passion and enthusiasm for Whitney Young and her students when she attended an open house for the school as a primary school student.
“One thing I think I really learned with her is that people who are ready to stand up for themselves, that’s kind of how you get things done,” said Kaplan, who joined Whitney Young there. six years ago at the university center for seventh and eighth graders. . “You would just have to go down to the office. You would have to be very proactive in talking with her and with the administration.
Arlyne Chin, president of fundraising organization Friends of Whitney Young, said she hopes Kenner’s successor follows in her footsteps by emphasizing academic excellence and respect for others.
“Those are the things that I think make her a strong director, also someone who’s willing to take a strong stance and if that’s not the right stance… being able to step back and say , either, ‘Hey, I made a mistake,’ or ‘I didn’t understand this,’ or ‘I want to understand this,’ and come to the table,” said Chin, a parent of two Whitney Young students. .
“There have been many times where there may have been conflict at school, or there are policies that are being challenged, and she always welcomes that dialogue with the students,” Chin said.
Kenner has withstood his share of controversies over the years. She made headlines a decade ago amid investigations into admissions practices at Chicago’s prestigious public high schools. The district revealed that it has an influential list of requests from well-connected individuals trying to get children into elite schools, including Whitney Young.
More recently, the the school’s former swim coach has been accused of rent the Whitney Young pool and pocket about $30,000 in proceeds over three years. The CPS Inspector General’s Office determined that Kenner “knew or should have known of the coach’s informal school rental arrangements with outside groups.” The school board imposed a five-day suspension without pay.
“At the end of the day, I tried to do the best job that I could do as a person. And, you know, I get 300 emails a day. And some of them are junk, but I answer every email. It’s just a lot on my plate. And so, should I have known about the swim coach? OK, I get it. But I trusted him to do the right thing” , Kenner said on Friday.
She continued, “I trust people to do the right thing, and I don’t feel like I have to follow everyone. And if I do, then you don’t have to be. to Whitney Young, because I don’t have time to babysit. My goal is to get our kids to colleges of their choice. We have adults in the building, and I expect that do adult things.
In 2020, during the national toll after the murder of George Floyd, Kenner found herself the target of an online petition calling for her resignation based on claims that she “silenced student activists speaking out against all forms of injustice”.
Kenner said she made the decision to retire about three or four years ago — and then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. She said she couldn’t leave then, although she called the past three years “the toughest” at the helm of Whitney Young. She said the school was prepared for the shift to remote learning in terms of technology, but not from an emotional standpoint.
“Prom, graduation, mental health issues, teachers crying because it was just overwhelming, students crying because they’re at laptops all day,” Kenner said. “I’m crying because my eyes hurt. I have to go to the doctor because I can’t see or my vision is deteriorating because I’m on the computer all day. I certainly would never have left (earlier) the pandemic.
Kenner has not set a departure date. She said she would stay until a new manager was chosen and help with the transition. She hopes the process will be completed by July 1. September 1 would be his “worst case scenario”. In retirement, she plans to devote herself to her 3-year-old granddaughter and her grandson on the way.
But before Kenner says goodbye to the top job, she has plenty of extracurricular activities to attend — a tradition she hopes the next principal will continue.
“I want someone like me to be able to physically participate in not all, but most student activities. And I get tired at the end of every day because I make myself available for the kids all the time,” Kenner said, noting that she recently spent spring break “in that scorching sun” in Florida to cheer on the women’s softball team. “Honestly, these girls will never forget that their manager came to Florida to see them play.”