Photo courtesy of Leotha Stanley

Vanessa Kent is ready to remove the “Interim” from her title and to assume the position as permanent principal of John F. Kennedy Elementary School on Madison’s east side. After serving as interim principal at Kennedy since February 2023, Kent received word last month that she will lead the school into its future. This is a full-circle moment for Kent, whose mother was once a student at Kennedy.

Born in Madison, Kent’s family moved to the Chicago suburbs when she was a child and she completed high school there. She then returned to Madison to attend UW-Madison as a third-generation Badger majoring in elementary education. She was a Powers-Knapp scholar (now the Mercille J. Lee Scholars Program) and played club volleyball for a few years. She began her teaching career in Denver, Colorado after doing student teaching in a dual-language school in Mexico. Kent returned to Madison as Kennedy’s assistant principal in the midst of the COVID pandemic in 2020 after completing the Summer Principals Academy at Teachers College-Columbia University.  

MMSD is truly a family affair for Kent. Her mother briefly attended Kennedy Elementary and graduated from LaFollette. Her father graduated from Memorial. Kent’s husband, Jason, works at Anana Elementary as the PBIS coach. Their children, Jackson (2) and Maddox (4 months), are future MMSD students and maybe future Badgers.

There are many parts to a principal’s job. For Kent, one of the most important is growing and supporting Kennedy’s staff as a team. “A lot of my job is ensuring that staff are set up for success, so providing opportunities where staff can collaborate and learn from each other excites me” Kent said. The years she spent as assistant principal supported her transition into the principalship because the staff knew what she was about. From that point, the team building and comradery have only increased. She is also interested in helping support staff to reach their professional goals of becoming teachers.

When it comes to the students, Kent is clear that her presence as a Black woman principal matters. It is important for the students see a principal that looks like them and members of their families. “It makes my day when Black girls come in and see my really big hair and their jaw drops,” she says. “They tell me I’m beautiful and I get to say you’re so beautiful and genuinely mean it.” It is important for Kent to show up as a confident and competent leader because it gives the students a model to grow into their own confidence.

Kent’s favorite part of her job is the problem-solving aspect. “I get to have great conversations with families, and students, and staff members and we are continually problem solving all day,” she says. The barrage of situations to navigate ensures that Kent’s days are never dull and, most importantly, allows her to be a part of the solutions that members of the school community seek, which is quite gratifying.

Kennedy is one of MMSD’s larger elementary schools, serving approximately 550 students in grade 4K through 5. Next school year, the school will be join MMSD’s Community Schools initiative. As a community school, Kennedy will offer wraparound services to families in the community. The school will be a hub where the community can access healthcare and human services providers right in their neighborhood. School staff will be key to facilitating connections between students, their families, and providers and the school’s support staff will double to provide all of the additional services.

In the community schools model, education is not limited to the interaction between teacher and child. Families and community adults are considered part of the school. They can come for services and also lend their expertise and experience in support of the children’s learning. The responsibility for each child’s learning is distributed between the school, families, and community partners, creating a true village. Kent is also hopeful that this community participation will help community members to see education as a viable career path for themselves. “They’re the ones who really know our students and can relate to them best,” she says.

When asked about the future, Kent is most excited about the transition to a community school. She sees incredible possibilities in the community’s future with the resources that Kennedy will be able to offer.