A turnaround year at Kenny

Parents welcome new principal and district support

KENNY — Kenny Community School parents want you to know this: Kenny is not going to close.

That persistent rumor — based on a massive school-closing plan from 2004 that, ultimately, the Minneapolis school board declined to act on — has dogged the school and its tight-knit community ever since.

“That still lingers,” Tim Keehn, the parent of two Kenny students, said. “It’s like that … black cloud that follows you around.”

This year, Kenny parents and staff members aim to banish that black cloud for good. They’re off to a good start with what some at the school see as a major vote of confidence from the district.

This fall, Kenny began the school year with additional resources for its classrooms, funded jointly by the district, the school’s parent teacher association and the Kenny School Foundation. The school also welcomed Assistant Principal Bill Gibbs.

Gibbs might be seen as a new type of school leader, one chosen specifically for his ability to work with teachers and lead instruction at his school. During three years as coordinator of the district’s Teacher Advancement Program (TAP), Gibbs led district efforts to attract and develop talented teachers.

Associate Superintendent Marianne Norris said principals were always expected to be instructional leaders. But principals wear multiple hats, including marketer, manager and parent liaison.

“They’ve done all the things that we’ve asked them to, and sometimes that meant they had a whole breadth of responsibilities and duties, and the thing that might get shorter attention was the instructional leadership part,” Norris explained. “… What we’re saying to all of them is that we really want you to prioritize that.”

Even though Gibbs occupies the main office at Kenny, he will be called “assistant principal” for the time being. It’s a sign that Gibbs took an untraditional route to the job, never spending two years as an assistant principal before getting his own school.

Norris noted that Gibbs gained administrative experience leading TAP. He was also a member of the inaugural class of the Minneapolis Principals Academy, a new district training program.

“From what I’ve seen so far, I think we’ve made a good match,” she said.

“Someone told me I was the seventh administrator in 12 years” at Kenny, Gibbs said during the first week of school. “The teachers are actually looking for some consistency and somebody to bring them focus.”

The focus at Kenny will be on boosting student achievement, especially in reading, math and science. It’s one of two goals Gibbs set for this school year, the other being to recruit three full kindergarten classes for the fall of 2009.

Meeting the second goal should be easier if Gibbs and his staff can follow through on the first.

For the past three school years, Kenny has missed goals for student achievement gains set under the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law. Those results are publicly reported and — although some consider the system to be unfair — they can have a strong influence on perceptions of school quality.

“At Kenny, I’ve just been honest with teachers,” Gibbs said. “We’ve had the same groups of students not succeeding for four years. We’ve analyzed this, we’ve targeted this, we know who it is, but we haven’t changed our instruction. That’s what has to happen now.”

The data-driven approach reflects Gibbs’ three years at TAP, where he learned to evaluate teachers and help them strengthen their skills.

“It’s an incredible group of teachers,” he said. “You know, the community loves these teachers, so I really want to build on that.”

Gibbs planned to lead academic improvement with weekly professional development sessions for his staff.

Now in her 22nd year at Kenny, veteran teacher Sherry Tsao acknowledged large-scale change could be difficult for teachers. Still, they, like Gibbs, want to see a better school, Tsao added.

“I told my kids I don’t want to be the best teacher, … I want to be a better teacher,” she said.

Kenny Parent Teacher Association President Cindy Van Ryn, the mother of a fourth-grader, described a small school with a friendly, small-town feel.

“I think part of it is the close neighborhood ties,” Van Ryn said. “… It sounds kind of cliché, but everybody helps out everybody.”

The Kenny building is surrounded by gardens, a reflection of the school’s environmental focus. What baffles some parents is their neighbors drive by the gardens, hear other parents praise the school “and yet they’re making another choice,” Jim Horn, another Kenny parent, said.

“There’s something wrong there,” Horn said. “They see all the positive signs, but they’re sending their kids elsewhere.”

Several parents said they felt Kenny had been overlooked in the past, taking second billing to Southwest’s blockbuster elementary schools like nearby Burroughs and Lake Harriet.

If that is the lasting impact of the school-closing rumors, it’s time to bury those rumors for good, Gibbs said.

“[Kenny closing] is not going to happen,” he said. “There’s not enough classroom space in Southwest.”

This year, the district also placed an Early Childhood Family Education program at Kenny and expanded the school’s bussing area into the nearby Windom and Armatage neighborhoods. Both changes are aimed at attracting new families.

For Keehn, it felt like a tsunami of very welcome support.

Said Keehn, “It feels like we’re riding this huge, positive wave.”