Salesianum School's first lay president in the school's 118-year history is stepping down at the end of the school year after a decade on the job.
Brendan Kennealey officially announced his intentions to the board Tuesday night with the news being made public Wednesday.
"It's definitely been something I'd been thinking about for while," he said. "I felt like I accomplished a lot of the stuff that I wanted to accomplish...I feel the pressure to get a bunch of stuff done before I actually leave...the construction of Abessinio Stadium, to get that finalized, so I agreed to finish out this year to make sure that that went smoothly."
He had planned to actually announce his intentions last spring, but always planned to stay on this school year, then the coronavirus pandemic hit.
"When COVID hit, that was not the right time to be talking about a transition, and we wanted to make sure that people felt the stability of the place, and so we waited until the fall."
Salesianum, an all-boys private Catholic school, was one of the first schools in the state--if not the first--to bring back students in-person.
"They have to wear masks in school; there's a lot of protocols that would not be normal in any other scenario, and they're just doing it. They understand the stakes are high; they don't want to go to an all-virtual environment, and so they're by and large kind of playing by the rules," he said. "The kids get it; they get the seriousness of it all."
He pointed to drastic schedule changes that help. School now starts later, at 9 a.m.
"Some of it the kids like better...there's tons and tons of academic research--everybody knows that that's what you should be doing--every high school educator knows that starting at 7:30 is wrong, but everyone still does it ... we pushed back the start for a variety of reasons, and it's made a huge difference in our kids. Teenagers are getting to sleep a little bit later, and that has a pretty big impact on how they perform throughout the day."
While he couldn't promise the later schedule would stick around under more normal circumstances, he said it's definitely something worth considering.
"It's certainly getting a lot of positive reviews around here. There are other challenges that come with it, but...the trade-offs are--when you see the kids in-person, you realize that oh well we may be able to get in a few more minutes if we started earlier, but you're trading the productivity of those minutes for if kids are well-rested, it's just a very different thing. I think it's possible...we and others may think harder about making a later start work."
While getting kids back in the classroom in a COVID world is a huge fear, Sallies also hired a schoolhouse director to help facilitate remote learning for children of faculty and staff, so they could return to their jobs with a work-life balance.
But Kennealey told WDEL he's most proud of making Salesianum School an accessible place of opportunity for students of all backgrounds.
"We pushed for....accessibility of the school and financial aid. It was my number one priority coming in, and I think we made a lot of progress there, building up our endowment and dramatically increasing financial aid, which is really so that students have access. It's been, historically, part of our mission. We very much have this blue collar ethos, even though we have changed over time, that's firmly within our DNA of the school. The school started to give kids opportunity that didn't have opportunity."
He believes that will be a part of his legacy.
"To me, that feels good because I feel I can leave, and hopefully, a lot of that stuff will stay; there's an infrastructure here to build off of so the next person coming in has a really solid team."
By far, the hardest part of the job, for him, is a bit of a catch-22. Salesianum's tight-knit community brings moments of joy and moments of both pain and loss.
"We have 1,000 kids, their parents, 16,000 alumni, and over a decade, the number of loss or tragedy that strikes a community...just by the sheer number--that's wearing. To see, some of that stuff up close is really hard--parents losing children...it takes its toll."
Abessinio Stadium will also be a part of his lasting legacy, and on his watch, he'll get to see the first football game in the state-of-the-art facility this November, after earlier doubts high school sports would happen due to the coronavirus pandemic. But there are other goals he wished he had accomplished.
"We have a fantastic arts program here, a fantastic director of arts and band, and one of the last pieces of our building that has not been renovated since the original is our auditorium...when we re-do it will be a performing arts space," he said. "And we need to do it, and that will be amazing when it's done, and I was very much hoping it would be on my watch, but unfortunately, it will have to be on the next person's watch."
He also leaves at a pivotal and tumultuous time in education as schools deal with COVID and also experience a moral reckoning with systemic racism.
"We put out a very strong statement around systemic racism...it was a letter that I wrote, taking a very strong stance, and acknowledging the challenges of our past both as a school, as a nation, and that we haven't done enough, and to be passive about it, is just no longer meets the standard," he said. "Racism exists, it exists here, it exists everywhere...I know that we've been working on this issue here at Salesianum for a long time and we have really dedicated people working hard, and I know that it still exists despite that....it's painful, it's awful, but I think more and more people are acknowledging that there's a serious problem, and it's not as simple as having people stop saying the 'n' word. It's much deeper than that."
He referenced Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1963 letter from a Birmingham City Jail.
"Where he basically talks about that it''s not the people burning crosses that I'm most worried about, it's the people who are standing quietly by, passive, and I think that's something that we have to reckon with; he was right in 1963 just as he would be today...that's part of the big problem. What I see happening, and what I think is a positive movement is that people are stopping from just being quiet about it. I think the more people that stand up and say that this has to be fixed, and we have to take a stand on it, the better."
It's a commitment that he said will withstand his departure, one he called an "institutional stance."
"This is what Salesianum is about. Salesianum was the first school in Delaware to integrate--we did it in 1950--we did it four years before Brown v. the Board of Education...we don't have a perfect record when it comes to these issues, but we've taken important stances over time...this is much bigger than me."
The Board of Trustees has formed a search committee and hired an executive search firm to identify the school's next leader.
What's next for Kennealey? He's considering an entrepreneurial start-up in the residential real estate space, but is also exploring his options.
"Particularly, in this community, to be a sitting head and to be trying to do a job search, locally, before you've announced that you're leaving, it's just really hard. This is a small town...everybody knows everybody; everybody knows everything."
Kennealey, who graduated from Sallies himself in 1994, has time before he has to give his parting words to students, but those words will center around students aspiring to fulfill their dreams and make a difference.
"Don't be afraid to go...we want you to go and take on the world and come back and tell us about it. We'll be really proud. I think that's what they should do--go make a difference in the world somewhere, whatever that might be, find your passion and do it," he said. "Hopefully, their education here, more than just their book/academic education, but their broader education here, kind of sets them on a path to make a difference in the world, and that could be being a good father...and being a good citizen, on top of all the other things that they could do. That's my hope for them."