Carol Kelley had been working in product management for Johnson & Johnson when she walked into what she now calls her ministry. An incident occurred at a school in the same area as her New Jersey church. After a group of boys had been expelled from the school for fighting, Kelley’s pastor called on members of the church to help provide mentoring and home schooling for the boys. Kelley, an engineer by training, was one of the congregants who enlisted in the cause. It was her first foray into teaching. Some months later, the principal of the middle school from which the boys were expelled, obviously impressed by the management professional, offered Kelley her first tenured track teaching position. That was back in 1994.
Last week, at a June 3 special meeting of the Oak Park District 97 Board of Education, Kelley was named the district’s new superintendent, succeeding retiring superintendent Al Roberts. Kelley’s three-year contract stipulates a starting base salary of $199,500, which will go into effect on July 1. Kelley, a Philadelphia native, has been the superintendent of schools for the K-8 Branchburg Township School District in New Jersey since 2012.
“It was really through my volunteer experiences that I began to question what I wanted to do in life,” Kelley said in a recent interview with Wednesday Journal.
Despite obtaining an undergraduate degree in systems engineering from the University of Pennsylvania and an MBA from the University of Virginia, and eventually working as an engineer and product manager, Kelley found her calling in the classroom. That fall in 1994 — aided by a state program that allows people with college degrees, but no traditional teacher training, to teach with provisional certificates — Kelley began a path that would take her from the classroom to various administrative offices. She would eventually obtain a Doctor of Education degree from the University of Pennsylvania.
Her doctoral dissertation focused on how black parents could support their children’s mathematics education. The work, she said, would inform her thinking on the achievement gap.
“I found that all the parents I interviewed wanted their children to succeed,” Kelley said, referring to her dissertation. “The community I selected was high-performing, affluent, all the parents I interviewed had advanced degrees, but they seemed to have in common this desire for their children to be happy versus the desire for them to succeed in school regardless of the costs — they really wanted to protect their children.”
Kelley, who is married with two sons, said the protectiveness was often the response to racially insensitive interactions they experienced while out in the dominant community. Kelley found that this desire among black parents to protect their children had the perverse effect of shutting them off from things that could be beneficial to their learning.
“A lot of parents I interviewed weren’t connected to those forms of capital that parents really need to help their children navigate through schooling,” Kelley said. “They were out of the loop.”
Kelley said she recommended that schools try coming up with ways to help all parents navigate through schooling. She advocated for parent liaisons and parent advisory groups that would engage with teachers beyond the regular communications.
“Teachers would reach to make sure that parents know about upcoming meetings and which [college preparatory courses to take],” she said. “It would be almost like guidance counseling for parents. Even though the parents I interviewed were well-educated, they didn’t know how to ask for certain classes that would make sure their children were taking competitive courses in preparation for college.”
When asked what kinds of programs or policies she’d seek to implement first once she’s settled into the Oak Park position, Kelley said many of her passion projects, such as full-day kindergarten (which she implemented at Branchburg Township) and early childhood screenings are already underway in Oak Park.
She did note, however, that she would like to extend D97’s IB [International Baccalaureate] program, which is implemented at the middle schools, to the elementary level.
This article has been updated to include the correct spelling of Dr. Kelley’s first name. Wednesday Journal regrets this error.