Guided by service

Phillip O. Berry Academy of Technology Principal Terra Kennedy considers herself an extremely organized, type-A personality. So when her staff wanted to surprise her, they knew how to get her attention. “They told me I had to go see the storage room because someone had gotten in and messed everything up,” said Kennedy. “I immediately ran down there to try to get everything back into place.”

The storage room was fine. Instead, Kennedy was greeted by staff from the Northwest Learning Community and her family. Kennedy was named the Northwest Learning Community Principal of the Year. “I was full of so many different emotions,” said Kennedy. “I felt honored that my peers thought that I should represent the learning community. We all work so hard. This has been a great opportunity to reflect on the relationships that I have with my peers.”

Kennedy is from the small South Carolina town of Coward. As a child, she pretended to be a teacher, influenced by two paternal aunts who are teachers. “I was encouraged to find a career that would allow you to serve others,” she said. “I joined the Teacher Cadets program in high school and I knew teaching was the career for me.”

She earned her bachelor’s degree from Winthrop University and her master’s degree from Gardner-Webb University. She was a student teacher at CMS and spent one year teaching in Rock Hill, S.C. where she was named New Teacher of the Year. She returned to CMS her second year to teach at Marie G. Davis, then an IB Middle Program. When she heard about Phillip O. Berry opening, she immediately applied.

“When I heard the story of Phillip O. Berry and how he wanted to be an engineer and couldn’t receive the education he needed, but he didn’t give up, I was inspired,” said Kennedy. “It reminded me of my own upbringing.”

In Coward, post-secondary education was not encouraged for African-American students. “My family knew how important it was, but African-Americans were expected to get a farm or a factory job,” said Kennedy. “Being a part of Phillip O. Berry allowed me to help students from all backgrounds have an opportunity to find a career, a STEM vocation or a college path.”

Kennedy taught at Phillip O. Berry for a decade and then became the leader of the Career and Technical Education program at Myers Park High. A year later, she was invited back to Phillip O. Berry to lead the magnet program. The school’s principal told Kennedy she had a gift for leadership. “I’d never considered that,” said Kennedy. “I thought I would teach for 30 years and retire.”

Kennedy earned her license but remained in her magnet position. Dr. Curtis Carroll became the principal of Philip O. Berry and encouraged her to become an assistant principal. “I wanted to be an AP at Phillip O. Berry,” said Kennedy. “Curtis told me that I needed to broaden my horizons and that I would love students at any school.”

She became the assistant principal of instruction at Garinger High. After two years, her learning community superintendent approached her about being a principal. Kennedy wasn’t sure she was ready. “I asked Brian Schultz (chief academic officer) to come observe me and see if I had a skill set to lead a school. He thought I was ready.”

Kennedy has been the principal of Phillip O. Berry for four years now, returning to the school she’s always loved. Her biggest goal is to prepare her students for the future. “When students sit down with me and say they aren’t going to college, I ask why,” she said. “When they graduate, they will have a diploma that gives them options. We are going to prepare them for the college, career or military. They will have access to the most rigorous coursework.”

The unique program at Phillip O. Berry allows students to pursue their passions before college. “We have the opportunity to save our students and their families time and money,” said Kennedy. “If they want to be an engineer, they can start taking classes and find out if that’s really what they want to do. I want our students to leave here with a purpose.”

Whenever she has a chance, Kennedy pushes aside her paperwork to interact with students. “It gives me the energy and strength to remind me why I do this,” she said. “For the students. My grandfather always said, ‘Don’t tell people what you do. Let your work speak for itself.’ Service is what guides me each day. It lifts me up when I give to others.”