Whitney Young H.S. selects new principal, only its 4th in 47 years, to replace retiring Joyce Kenner
Assistant Principal Rickey Harris takes over the prestigious Near West Side school. Harris has served two stints at Whitney Young, his first from 2006 to 2010 as the school’s dean of students before returning in 2020.
An assistant principal at Whitney Young Magnet High School has been tapped to replace longtime Principal Joyce Kenner, who retires this week after nearly three decades at the prestigious selective enrollment school.
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Whitney Young’s Local School Council voted unanimously Wednesday to offer a principal contract to Assistant Principal Rickey Harris, 49, making him the school’s first new principal since 1995 and only the fourth principal in its 47-year history.
Harris has served two stints at Whitney Young, his first from 2006 to 2010 as the school’s dean of students. He went on to become the principal of St. Margaret of Scotland School, a South Side Catholic elementary school, before he returned to CPS in the fall of 2013. He moved between a few schools before he went back to a private school and eventually returned to Whitney Young in 2020.
“This is a full circle moment for me,” Harris told about 50 staff, parents and students gathered for the LSC meeting Wednesday evening in the school’s second-floor library, declaring that “dreams still do come true.”
“Whitney Young is and always has been a special place to me,” he said. “I’m not perfect. I’m human. But I do believe I’m perfect for our school for such a time as this. I’m committed to leading with love, listening with a heart to understand and learning to be a better me today than I was yesterday.”
The LSC said it went through a “robust” search that landed on the in-house candidate, taking community input into consideration. The other finalist was Kerry Dolan, an assistant principal at Brooks College Prep.
Harris turns 50 later this month and called his new job an early birthday present. He said he plans to continue Kenner’s focus on extracurriculars along with academics, while one of his primary goals will be to support special education students through a successful high school career.
“I’ve been here so I understand the students, I understand the culture,” Harris said in an interview after signing his new contract. But he said the school would “experience a loss” with Kenner’s departure.
Harris met Kenner in 2004 when he was the assistant principal at an elementary school. He visited Whitney Young for a meeting and chatted with Kenner, a moment he said Wednesday changed his life. Since then, the two have grown close. And she said she had Harris in mind when tossing around possible successors in her head and recommended him to the LSC — though she wasn’t allowed to vote on the matter Wednesday.
Kenner retires as one of CPS’ longest-tenured principals and perhaps its most prominent. She became synonymous with Whitney Young over the years, championing the school’s athletics and clubs with its curriculum while facing criticism that she hasn’t always handled student concerns with care.
Kenner was the target of numerous district and inspector general investigations and in some cases, disciplined. Most recently she came under heat for allegedly failing to take students’ complaints seriously for nearly a decade about a girls’ cross country coach accused of inappropriate conduct with students.
But Kenner felt love at the meeting Wednesday. Both she and Harris received standing ovations and thanked fellow administrators, teachers, support staff and families for their support. Kenner told the students in attendance they were “in good hands” with Harris.
Kimberly Hinton, a former science teacher and department chair at Whitney Young, thanked Kenner for being the “first person that invited me to show up in my whole self.
“You gave me the courage to make decisions even though I was doing it scared,” Hinton said. “She’s got the teachers’ backs, and she has the parents’ backs. I want to thank you for being a trailblazing Black woman that allowed me to see what is possible.”