An Interview with Michael Kennedy

by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D.

The interview took place in Mr. Michael Kennedy’s office across from Holy Name Cathedral. It was a cold spring morning; the office seemed to be filled with the graces and warmth of a place wanting students, administrators, faculty and staff to learn and to love learning. Michael is a man who is comfortable with his leadership role and willing to embrace the challenges that are presented in leading The Frances Xavier Warde School, a school of 1000 students.


Dr. Knight: The readers would like to know your background in Catholic education and what that involvement means to you.


Michael Kennedy: I went to Catholic grade school and high school. I did my undergraduate work at Boston College where I continued to grow in my understanding and love of the Catholic Church and earned my Master’s Degree from The University of Notre Dame. Aside from my formal education, I would say I learned a great deal about the tenets of faith growing up in a large family. I grew up in Kankakee, Illinois as the seventh of eleven children and we were constantly surrounded by men and women clergy. We were involved and engaged with our Church. We may have been required to go as children, but that shaped my choice to be connected to the Church today.


Dr. Knight: We are a large Catholic archdiocese growing in diversity. Could you tell us about the religious diversity in your school? Other aspects of diversity?


Michael Kennedy: The vision of Mrs. Maggie Daley and Father Jack Wall, and with the leadership of Mary Ellen Caron, allowed for a school to develop in a unique model—a model that was years before its time. The Frances Xavier Warde School is inviting of all faiths, and truly is the standard for faith-based education as people of all religions feel welcome. When I came to FXW four years ago, I knew it was unique in its model and distinct in its mission, but I now know how the FXW school model is needed—in our city, country and certainly in our Church. I continue to re-imagine Catholic school education for a vibrant future. We lean on our four Charisms:


FXW is a Community of Faith and as a Catholic community, we proclaim the goodness of God and everything we teach is rooted in the Catholic tradition. We welcome the gifts that the interfaith members of our community contribute to our mission. We encourage all members of our community to evaluate their cultural values in the context of faith.


FXW is a Community that is Purposefully Diverse and Intentionally Inclusive. Chicago is a city of neighborhoods. By inviting all the neighborhoods into our school, we show the value of and respect toward all cultures. We seek out diversity and rejoice in the gifts that an inclusive community has in a global society. FXW is a Community of Service, and we put our faith into action by reaching out to serve others, especially those in need. Students and their families perform service projects for both the local community and the community beyond our borders.


FXW is a Community of Thinkers and Leaders in an Academically Enriched Environment. The FXW community prepares students to be leaders in the world. The education is rigorous and inextricably linked to becoming a person of faith and character. The program of studies is project-based, progressive and helps each student think critically in the pursuit of excellence.


Dr. Knight: What is your philosophy of leadership? What are some of the aspects of leadership that you promote?


Michael Kennedy: I learned early in my administrative career it is difficult to have just one philosophy of leadership. My approach is rooted in many philosophies and styles, such as modeling, and always being mission-minded. As a servant leader, I need to model what I hope for and expect of my colleagues. To quote author and educator Roland Barth: “you cannot lead—where you yourself won’t go.” This also spells out the expectations my colleagues can have for me. Ultimately, our collective good work needs to be mission aligned, and I try to promote a culture of continuous improvement with a clear idea of the “why” behind everything we do.


Dr. Knight: What are some ways you have dealt with challenges in regard to the students or their parents and how did you find solutions?


Michael Kennedy: “The challenge for all of us is to somehow connect the mystery of God with the mystery of our lives.” Charism magazine, Winter 2018 p. 6 (Father Sakowicz, in Forming Souls) I believe that if we keep Fr. Greg’s idea in the forefront of our work, the students will realize how easily this becomes the mantra for their lives and truly live this in the spirit of a faith-filled school experience. The constant consultation with the parents and their children provides a blessing for all in the school as they use the relationship established as a way to invite the students and their families into deeper connection and thus a more rewarding service in the school and the community.


Dr. Knight: What advice would you give to a new teacher on his/her first year of teaching? How about a veteran teacher in need of improvement?


Michael Kennedy: I would probably give the same advice to both veteran and new teachers: I would encourage them to be constant and consistent in their expectations of the students. I would remind them of the awesome responsibility they have, forming young minds and future leaders, and I would support their every effort as they encourage students to love to learn–while they learn to love.


Dr. Knight: What are some of the ways you interact with parents to support their work in raising their children?


Michael Kennedy: We interact with students almost 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, 9 months of the year, so having a transparent and trusting partnership with the parents is paramount. We have amazingly supportive parents, and we strive to always have our doors open to them. We want our parents to support the school’s philosophy of these students being responsible, self-advocates, and collaborative in all their activities and actions. The parents know what “they were signing up for” when they applied to FXW, and they are supportive and engaged and very interested in the success of the school. We feel it is important to remind parents what progressive faith-based education looks like while also supporting them in “raising an adult.” We want students to be mindful in regard to self-awareness, self-assessment and self-worth so they can be in the moment—and the adults in their lives support this.


Dr. Knight: How do you promote rigor in your school while remaining the pinnacle of hospitality with the families?


Michael Kennedy: We think of schools in a different way than we did in the past. We attend to the whole child: physically, intellectually, morally, socially and spiritually. It is a time when we assist the students to identify their talents and use those talents in service to one another. Our hospitality continues to be inclusive and caring. We want the students to be great members of our society and the foundational work is done right here. The notion of the school is that we are paying attention to all of the child’s needs so that we can interact in a way that is best for the child.


Dr. Knight: Data is a large part of determining the success of schools. Explain your involvement in using data for the benefit of the students, their parents and the other schools in the Archdiocese?


Michael Kennedy: I guess I would disagree that data is a large part of determining the success of schools. At FXW, success is not defined ONLY by numbers, but rather how we reach each child where he/she may be and how we bring them along. Let’s not forget, we are preparing students for job that may not yet exist, so a grade on a math quiz or a standardized test score does not define the student, the teacher, or the school. We strike a balance of using data, not over-analyzing the educational experience, and certainly do not want a score or the grade to hinder the learning process—but rather inform the instruction. Kids need to develop a love of learning and teachers can do this when there is room for instruction and the absence of the typical over-emphasis on assessments. Students need to learn to fail, to be resilient, to be a self-advocate, and these are all characteristics that will make them a decent, kind, and caring adult. I am not sure if there is one singular answer key to measure that.


The use of data today is one that strengthens our partnerships with other schools, with parents, with the community at large and with all the faculty and staff. All are working on making sure each student succeeds—and that is defined differently from child to child. We understand the importance of standardized tests, but we don’t use only one variable to understand the student. We are interested in the whole child.


Dr. Knight: Technology is such an integral and important part of our lives. What has been effective for your schools? Do we use technology ‘too much’?


Michael Kennedy: We strike a balance with the use of technology. While we have a 1:1 program, good instruction is what we aspire to, with or without technology and devices. We have internal specialists and at times will rely on external experts in the field to come in to talk to our students and parents about the appropriate use of devices, especially with regard to time used and where it can be used. This has been a significant change in the last five years and continues to change rapidly with our effort to be strong and thorough in helping students to use their devices with respect and a strong sense of morality.


Dr. Knight: Thank you for providing us with valuable information about the engagement you have in education and providing us with a great model of faith-based education.

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