Principal seeks to create a new culture and attitude at newly-merged Philo-Hill
Macon, Ga.-native Kenyatta Bennett has always enjoyed a challenge, and serving as principal of the newly-merged Philo-Hill Magnet Academy comes with more than a few of them.
Since Bennett took the helm in July, his mission has been to change the culture, atmosphere and reputation of the school.
“It’s been fast-paced,” he said of his first six months as principal. “It’s been a whirlwind. There have been some challenges, and the learning curve has been tremendous.”
Philo-Hill’s recent test scores showed a 13 precent proficiency rating – the lowest of any middle school in the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County school district – and the students and staff are still grappling with the challenges of building a unified culture following the merger of Philo and Hill middle school last year. Both schools had large populations of minority students from low income homes and carried the unsavory reputations that come with those factors.
“What better place to have a positive impact? I think any teacher worth their weight in salt got into the profession because they wanted to be impactful and at the end of the day, I want people to be able to say about me that I had a positive impact on their lives, first and foremost the children, but also the professionals that I work with,” said Bennett, a former assistant principal at Flat Rock Middle, a school with a student population similar to the one at Philo-Hill, whose 500 students are mostly African American and Hispanic.
Carol Montague-Davis, assistant superintendent of middle and high schools, said Bennett is the right person to take Philo-Hill to a higher level.
“He’s a visionary. He’s passionate about kids and he’s passionate about what he does,” she remarked. “…I think he’s a leader that will bring along a team of people that want to make a difference.”
Bennett, an alumnus of Clark Atlanta University, has been in education for more than a decade, spending much of his time helping students who need it most.
“I have a passion for children that oftentimes are underserved, underprivileged,” noted the father of two. “I have a passion for all kids, but my heart is really with that group.”
Since coming to Philo-Hill, a cultural arts and international business magnet school, Bennett has overseen a variety of changes. He’s rearranged class and office locations to make the school more inviting and allow for more efficient movement around the building, and is working to revive the fervor around programs like the systemwide spelling bee. Through one-on-one and group meetings, he is challenging the faculty to raise their expectations, and taking steps to hold students to a higher standard, both academically and behaviorally, making a point to reward positive behaviors he observes as often as he corrects the negative ones.
“When I worked in more affluent schools, there was more of a sense that school was a fun place. When I worked at high poverty schools, there was more of a sense that schools needed to be policed. I wanted to bring a sense of balance … we’re not running a prison. It should be school – it should be fun.”
The school faces an uphill battle in many respects, but Bennett says he is already beginning to see things change for the better.
“I see the kids that say they’re having a great year and they really like this place and they’re having fun, and that’s important to me, especially at the middle school level,” he noted. “We want to keep kids engaged in school. The more they like school, the more likely they are to perform.”
Montague-Davis said Bennett’s impact is already evident on campus.
“I think he’s done a great job in the first six months,” she declared. “He’s beginning to build that community. I see a celebration of kids over there, of (the things) they do good and not just looking at what they are not doing well.”
Next school year, Bennett says he plans to find a way to incorporate enrichment activities that are typically held after school, such as clubs, into the school day, to alleviate the transportation barriers that many of his students face. His goal is to make the school a “hub” of positive activity that the students will look forward to visiting. Bennett has already won over roughly 50 Philo-Hill students through an innovative program known as the Saturday Success Academy. Held twice a month for a half day on Saturdays, the free programs include academic support and enrichment activities and provide both breakfast and lunch for the students. Eighth graders Jahon Workman and Jailyn Carlton gave the program high marks.
“It’s on Saturday and I don’t have anything to do on Saturdays,” explained Jailyn, an aspiring district attorney. “They said if we needed help with anything then they could help, and they did because I needed help in math.”
“She said it wasn’t nothing like school, so I had to see for myself,” Jahon said of Cheryl Littlejohn, one of the Academy’s directors. “You get to earn prizes, she gives us gift cards, and they give us pizza every time.”
The Saturday Academy is one of three distinct programs the United Way Women’s Leadership Council sponsors at area middle schools. Montague-Davis, who serves on the Women’s Council Program Committee, said the Academy is just one of the many positive aspects of the new Philo-Hill.
“I just think that you will be hearing some great things from that school,” she commented. “We have the right leadership there that’s going to move the school forward.”
Bennett is also a firm believer that Philo-Hill is on its way up.
“We are headed in the right direction,” he promised. “Big things are going to happen at Philo-Hill, not because of me, but because of the hard work and the dedication of the Philo-Hill family and staff.”