Fulfilling a Dream Inspired by a Segregated Start

by Paul Riede

Charlie Kent’s inspiration to become a school leader came early on and from a spectacularly negative role model. It was in the 1960s, and he was a student at a segregated high school in Mississippi.“I wanted to become a superintendent of schools because I knew our superintendent,” he says. “The other schools got the best of everything, and we got what was left. I used to say I wanted his job.”

Two and a half years ago Kent achieved his dream of leading a school district—and in the process accepted some daunting challenges. Although it’s hundreds of miles north and several decades removed from the neglected schools of his youth, Country Club Hills School District 160 in suburban Chicago offers its own set of problems.

The district’s student body is 98 percent African American, and just over half its 1,700 students are poor enough to qualify for the federal lunch program. Two of the three schools in the K-8 district are on the state’s watch list of schools that are not meeting academic standards.

Carolyn Chhutani, the school board president, says Kent has acted dramatically to improve the situation, driven by his high expectations for all students. Last spring he overhauled the administration, recommending the board not renew the contracts of the assistant superintendent and five of the district’s six building administrators. The board agreed, and by the beginning of the current school year all six posts had been filled with new leadership.

“That was a bold move and something we really had to study hard,” Chhutani says. “He did his homework.”

Last year Kent and the Country Club Hills teachers’ union concluded peaceful negotiations on a three-year contract, leading Chhutani to observe that teachers are working “harder than ever.” The superintendent also moved to better align the schools’ curricula with state standards and brought in new teacher-training programs.

Kent had a similar impact on the Decatur, Ill., schools when he served there as human relations director in the mid-1990s, says Walt Warfield, former superintendent in Decatur and now executive director of the Illinois Association of School Administrators. He says Kent’s calm, sincere manner eased tension in the district caused by a lengthy fight over a teachers’ contract. The number of grievances reaching the superintendent’s desk was cut drastically after Kent took over.

“It was like turning a light switch on when Charlie came into the district,” Warfield says. “He’s a problem solver and a peacemaker.”

Some of Kent’s calm decisiveness comes from his background in the military. He spent 14 years as an Army reservist, including time as an administrative clerk during Operation Desert Storm in Saudi Arabia.

He joined the Army so he could continue his education, and he ended up receiving degrees from four different institutions. He is now working on his doctoral dissertation at a fifth, Illinois State University.

But the superintendent’s most formative years were spent in the segregated South, where he was bused past two white schools to get to his all-black school. His grandparents were sharecroppers. His parents were so well known for their civil rights activities that the family was frequently harassed.

“We were followed everywhere we went,” Kent says. “If we were going into the town area or just on the highway, a car or a pickup truck would pull out and they would just follow you.”

His father, a farm worker, and his mother, a domestic worker, stressed education as the way to improve things.

Kent has maintained his parents’ civil rights activism, rising to second vice president of the Illinois State Conference of Branches of the NAACP in the early 1990s. It was his NAACP work, he adds, that gave him the patience to listen to all sides of an issue before taking action.

“I think the more people I involve from time to time in making decisions keeps me out of hot water,” he says with a laugh.

For Kent, it’s all a matter of fulfilling a pledge he made decades ago as he watched a different superintendent in a different time and place. He sees opportunity, not irony, in the fact he now oversees schools that are almost as segregated as those he attended as a child.

“I came away with an understanding that every child walking through the school door should have equal access to an education,” he says. “And I will do everything in my power to see that that happens.”

Paul Riede is an education writer with The Post-Standard in Syracuse, N.Y. E-mail:

Bio Stats: Charlie Kent

superintendent, Country Club Hills, Ill.

assistant superintendent for human resources, Indianapolis, Ind.


Greatest Influence on Career:
R.H. Bearden, my high school principal. His work ethic, love and passion for teaching has always been and remains a trait I’ve tried to emulate. He taught me to spend the time it takes to get the job done right the first time.

Best Professional Day:
In 2001 when the board president of Country Club Hills called to offer me the superintendent’s position.

Books at Bedside:
We Can’t Teach What We Don’t Know by Gary R. Howard and the Bible

Biggest Blooper:
Talking to a reporter, supposedly off the record, and making some snide comments—only to read them later in print.

A Reason Why I'm an AASA Member:
The camaraderie and the information that is shared by the association. Also, a larger voice that speaks for administrators.