Alumna Profile: Kelly Wright Henrion ’92

Kelly WrightBriefly describe your path after leaving St. Francis. 
After leaving St. Francis, I majored in Latin American Studies at Carleton College in Northfield, MN – an extraordinary place, despite the very cold winters! I joined Teach for America upon graduation and was placed as a bilingual (Spanish/English) elementary teacher in a dual language charter school in its first year in Phoenix, AZ. Being part of a school in its founding years was a great experience that afforded lots of leadership opportunities.  

Next, I pursued my Master’s degree at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education in Administration, Planning, and Social Policy. From there, I moved to San Diego and taught in a 5th grade bilingual classroom. Despite lots of conversations with my 5th graders about their hopes and dreams for the future, at the end of the year, I would send them to 6th grade at the middle school next door where zero percent (zero!) of the students passed the Algebra I state exam as 8th graders. To me, that was unacceptable. Algebra is a gatekeeper for other advanced classes in high school, and I knew that if my students were going to realize their dreams, I needed to do more. So I applied for a fellowship through the KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) to start a college preparatory middle school for low-income families in San Diego. I founded KIPP Adelante Preparatory Academy in 2003, and thanks to the dedication of amazing families, students, and faculty, by our third year, we were awarded the National Title I Distinguished School Award (out of more than 5,000 Title I schools in California) for narrowing the achievement gap the most.

Later, I joined the national KIPP team to help leaders in other communities found and lead their own schools. There I led our leadership development programs as Chief Learning Officer, and later oversaw all of our school-facing programs (serving over 200 schools across the country) as Chief Program Officer. Although I learned a lot in these national roles, I wanted to work closer again with kids and families. So I next moved to Memphis, TN to serve as the Executive Director/Superintendent of KIPP Memphis’ eight schools, K-12.

Now, I am back home in Louisville, and very excited for what is ahead!

Looking back at your time at St. Francis, what stands out?
There are so many things that stand out from my time at St. Francis. Especially from my perspective now as an educator, I am struck by the quality of teaching at the school. It is evident in the incredible passion of teachers for their subject matter and in the emphasis that was placed on critical thinking throughout all that we read, wrote, and discussed. The small class sizes allowed us to build meaningful relationships with our teachers and with each other.  Finally, the independence that we were permitted as adolescents—such as choosing an independent study or spending a free period off campus—prepared us well for the decision-making we would need in college, and life.

Do you recall a specific teacher or friend that influenced you in some way?
So many people at St. Francis played such an influential role in my life. However, from the moment I was assigned to his advisory as a freshman, Tom Miron has been especially influential. As an advisor, he looked out for me, was candid, and provided important counsel. As a teacher, he was a master at bringing history alive, stimulating rigorous debates, and holding high expectations. Not too long ago, I had the opportunity to sit in one of his classes, and I was reminded of what a great storyteller he is and the incredible gift he has for teaching. I realize that I learned a lot about teaching from him.

Today, I feel lucky that I continue to learn from Miron through his ongoing mentorship and guidance.

How was your experience at St. Francis a factor in determining your career path?
First, I’ll never forget the phone call from Mr. Pike when he shared the news with my mom and me that I would be the school’s first St. Francis Scholar and that I would be awarded a full, four-year scholarship. That phone call – and the opportunity it represented – changed my life in so many ways. My family could have never afforded the tuition at SFHS, but the scholarship made it – and so many other life opportunities – possible.

Wright_WES_2017 4x6Throughout high school and college, as I was determining my career path, I knew I had been lucky by receiving this scholarship award, but it wasn’t until my junior year in college, when I had to take a semester off for financial aid reasons, that I realized just how lucky I had been. During that semester off, I substitute taught (back then, you only needed 2 years of college to do so), at the high school that many of my grade school friends had attended. I saw firsthand the extreme disparities in the education that I had received at SFHS and the one that they had received, through no fault of their own. The inequity did not seem just to me.

So I went back to Carleton College for my senior year, and added education as a minor. I believe all children deserve an excellent education like the one I had the privilege to experience at SFHS. Unfortunately, we are far from that reality in this country; my career has been dedicated to playing a small role in making that happen for the students, families, and communities in which I work.

What are the highlights of your career thus far?
Founding my own school was definitely a highlight. Although it was an incredible challenge and meant very long work days, it was a lot of fun to work alongside families and community members to build a school of which we were proud. In fact, there are many elements of St. Francis embedded into KIPP Adelante Preparatory Academy. As a couple of examples, we started off every day with a Morning Meeting and our faculty and students utilized the entire downtown area (theatres, parks, libraries) as our campus!  

I am most proud when I hear news and updates from my former students, especially at this time of year (graduation season). I treasure the photos of them in their regalia, proudly holding their college diplomas in hand. Given that almost all of them are the first in their families to graduate from college, it makes their successes all the more impressive, and I am very proud of each of them.

How do you define success?
To me, success is contributing to our world in a way that makes it a better place, a more just place, for those around us, especially those who have had fewer opportunities.  

Whenever I am at a crossroads and wondering what else I can do to contribute to that end, I come back to Margaret Mead’s reflection and call to action: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

What’s next for you?
I will be the Head of School at West End School in Louisville – a small, independent school serving boys from low-income neighborhoods in PK- 8th grade. I am very excited to do the work that I love to do in the city I call home. There is an extraordinary group of faculty, families, students, volunteers, and Board members that I am humbled and honored to join, and I cannot wait to get started!