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Julie Kennedy '99

VIDEO: Julie Kennedy '99 and her students discuss their charter school in Brooklyn. (2:00)

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Enterprising Willamette graduate leads successful inner-city charter school

Julie Kennedy '99 left Willamette University with a chemistry degree, a passion for teaching and a desire to create positive change for children in need.

She went on to help found and lead a charter school for inner-city students in Brooklyn — one that beat all other New York City public schools, both regular and charter, in a progress report the year after it opened.

Today, Williamsburg Collegiate Charter School puts students struggling with poverty, learning delays and disabilities on the path to college. A recent New York Times article examining charter schools featured Williamsburg as a "high-flying school."

"Willamette always encouraged me and other students to make things happen, whether it was organizing a flood relief drive or putting on a basketball tournament," Kennedy says. "That's the reason I'm doing what I am now. I never questioned that if we had a vision for a school, we could make it happen."

Kennedy also worked one-on-one with professors to improve her writing skills — something that came in handy when she helped draft a 600-page charter for Williamsburg.

But the experience that most inspired Kennedy to teach was the Webber Scholarship, a Willamette program that allows female science undergraduates to serve as role models for children.

"I wrote lesson plans and developed strategies for teaching science to elementary school kids," Kennedy says. "I loved showing kids why chemistry mattered and how it applied to their lives. The Webber Scholarship was a turning point."

From Willamette to New York

After graduation, Kennedy joined the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, a year-long service program. Her work at a New Jersey school cemented the idea that she wanted to teach.

She moved to Boston to teach science at Boston Collegiate Charter School. She also decided to pursue a master's degree in public policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.

When her boss approached her about replicating his school in Brooklyn, Kennedy jumped at the chance. She helped create the new school in 2005 and became its founding principal while finishing her master's.

Structure of a Charter School

Williamsburg is a free public school for grades five through nine, with plans to expand through grade twelve. The difference from a regular school is that Williamsburg has the freedom to set up its own policies and structures and to hire teachers from anywhere in the country.

In return, the school must meet a higher level of accountability and set rigorous goals for student achievement and teacher and parent satisfaction. Students are chosen through a lottery system.

Williamsburg's program is based on high academic and behavioral expectations, the belief that creativity flourishes within a structured academic environment and the idea that without great teachers, nothing else matters.

"Our classes are quiet, students raise their hands to be called on, and they form straight lines to get in and out of class," Kennedy says. "They guess and make mistakes publicly. We create a safe environment so that no one is worried about getting a wrong answer."

Overcoming Barriers to Success

Sixty percent of Williamsburg's students are Latino and 40 percent are African-American. About 87 percent qualify for free and reduced-price lunches — a federal standard indicating poverty — and 15 percent have individualized education plans for special education, meaning they have delayed skills or disabilities.

But Kennedy has watched them thrive in the highly structured environment.

"Our students have done extremely well on English, math, history and science exams," she says. "We have a huge waiting list to get in, with three times the number of applications as we have seats.

"I received a note from a mother the month after her son started attending our school. She said that her son no longer talks about what he wants to be when he grows up. Instead, he talks about where he wants to go to college. Many of these kids don't assume they're going to college, and removing that barrier can be critical for a student's success."