All my life people have told me that my father changed their lives. They got involved in public service, in the Peace Corps and in their communities because he asked them. To me, the generation he inspired is perhaps his greatest legacy. And they in turn have inspired generations that followed. None of us need look too far to find things we want to improve or people who need our help. But it isn't always easy to make the time or the effort. So the people who dedicate themselves to others can help the rest of us discover how and what we have to give.
Like many New Yorkers after Sept. 11, I asked myself what I could do to help strengthen the city in which I live--and, for me, the answer was to get involved in the effort to improve New York City's public schools. As a society, there is nothing more important than how we raise and educate our children.
Education begins in the classroom, but schools need an entire community--students, teachers, parents, local businesses and neighbors--to work together to help children succeed. Most of all, schools need a leader, and that is why in New York City, one of the cornerstones of school reform has been a training program for a new generation of principals. It is called the NYC Leadership Academy, and its first graduates are now leading some of the city's most challenging schools.
One of those graduates is Verone Kennedy. Although coincidentally we have the same last name, our lives could not have been more different. Verone was born in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, a tough neighborhood best known for its racial tension in the early 1990s. His father ran a dry-cleaning store and struggled to break even. His mother was the director of a social-services center. "Lots of people had guns or knives," he says. "You had to think twice about where you were going and what you were wearing." All he will say about the schools of his youth is that they were "unbelievable," adding, "I lost quite a few friends," including one who was killed at age 12 for a pair of glasses. Verone had little interest in school. One of his teachers predicted he would "end up dead or in jail."
But when Verone was in 11th grade, "Mrs. M," an art teacher, told him he had an aptitude for sketching and painting. He began spending time in her classroom, working on his portfolio. By the end of the year, he began to believe for the first time that he was good at something. His confidence spilled over into his academic subjects. With a lot of support from Mrs. M and his college-educated mother, and after another session of summer school, Kennedy decided to go to college.
For two years afterwards, he worked as an urban park ranger, a position that enabled him to conduct educational programs at schools in some of New York's better neighborhoods--and in its worst. "They were totally different," he says. "The quality of the teaching, the amount of books ... the inequities were so clear that it forced me to think about what I wanted to do with my life."