Catholic Charities is proud to announce that Cheryll James, Ph.D., a dedicated educator, has been promoted to the role of principal of the Lt. Joseph P. Kennedy Institute.
James brings to the position more than 20 years of diverse experience as a teacher, administrator and official with the Maryland State Department of Education. She decided to pursue a career in education after working at IBM for many years, where she found her passion by volunteering for the Junior Achievement program, teaching high school students about business.
After obtaining her master’s degree, she became a math and science teacher and was named teacher of the year by the Corcoran Gallery. She later held administrative positions, from business manager to principal, at charter schools before transitioning into program and compliance roles with the Maryland and D.C. governments. In these positions, she supervised close to 2,000 findings of noncompliance that were more than five years old, and she helped establish the first State of Maryland Charter School Principal’s Institute.
“It was these positions that required me to spend a great deal of time visiting and spending time in schools,” she said. “I realized how much I missed being around the students and the energy found in actual school buildings. I found myself missing what I call the ‘lightbulb’ moments when you actually get to see the positive impact firsthand of when the students are grasping a concept, be it academic or social.”
This desire and dedication to seeing students succeed her led her to the Kennedy School, a day school for children and young adults ages six to 22 with disabilities, where she was assistant principal for three years.
As principal, James is eager to build on the school’s mission to develop students with disabilities and make it a national model to help similar students transition into lives of purpose and passion. Her vision includes supporting staff with the necessary tools, increasing community partnerships, growing enrollment and establishing innovative programming like incorporating the arts.
Although James has taken on this new role in an uncertain environment, she and her staff have worked tirelessly to minimize the impact of the pandemic on student learning.
“We have done a great job of staying connected to students and families through our remote learning,” James said. “We use Zoom primarily to provide instruction, but we also use other platforms to enhance students’ learning, therapeutic services and regular check-ins. We also conduct numerous home visits to deliver work packets, progress reports, certificates of accomplishments, and even food baskets and holiday gifts, and to check on students who have been absent from classes.”
Because the pandemic happened so suddenly, neither staff nor students were able to properly prepare to learn from home for an indefinite amount of time. To resolve the technology gap many of the students faced, James and her staff mobilized quickly to ensure students had access to computers donated by a generous community partner and WiFi hotspots so they could participate in remote learning.
Although they are apart, James works with staff to make schooldays as normal as possible. To ensure students are engaged, teachers still closely monitor attendance and follow truancy protocols. Still, students report that they miss being in school and the socialization they experience from classroom learning. This is something James misses as well.
“Some of my favorite moments are when students support and help each other,” she said, “particularly when it involves a student who would have previously never done anything like that. I miss events like the prom, which really showcases a different side of the students. They all seem to take on a different personality that allows their light to shine in a whole different way. Events like this bring up a variety of emotions, as you will find yourself laughing and crying all at the same time.”
James looks forward to the day when students and staff can reunite in the Kennedy School’s classrooms, so that she can share her love and commitment to learning, which she considers her specialty as an educator.
“I truly believe that learning is a lifelong journey and not simply a destination.”