30 Apr 2019


Leading Schools That Change Lives

An innovative educator brought business insights, administrative experience, and a layman’s perspective to the task of rescuing a financially troubled Delaware Catholic high school.
by Deborah Blagg

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Photo by Kelli Wilke

In 2011, Brendan Kennealey (MBA 2006) returned to his high school alma mater in Wilmington, Delaware, to serve as the first non-clergy president in the Catholic school’s century-long history. “Salesianum School’s transition to lay leadership was a big step, and it captured my imagination,” says Kennealey, who embraces the school’s emphasis on spiritual awareness, social responsibility, and academic excellence (98 percent of graduates are college-bound).

He accepted the post at a challenging time. Salesianum had experienced several years of budget deficits and declining enrollment, the result of sexual abuse lawsuits against priests in the Oblate order that had founded the school. “I wanted to help Salesianum navigate to a place of firmer footing,” observes Kennealey, who arrived after the litigation was settled but nonetheless inherited leadership challenges that included not only restoring the school’s fiscal health, but also its reputation for serving those with less.

The urgency of the school’s financial problems gave Kennealey leverage to move quickly on some key initiatives while building relationships and credibility for longer-term changes. Increasing financial aid and strengthening diversity at Salesianum, where tuition is close to $16,000 annually, were top priorities. “From its earliest days, the school’s leaders reached out to educate children of immigrants who couldn’t afford tuition,” he notes. “With a lot of kids in our area living in poverty, a campaign to increase financial aid and community ties was right in line with our historic mission.”

Salesianum’s donors agreed. Under Kennealey’s leadership, financial aid has grown by 200 percent. Last year, the school provided more than $1 million in financial aid, an amount that will continue to increase as a result of a recent $10 million gift to Salesianum’s endowment.

“A $10 million gift is rare for any secondary school,” Kennealey observes. “The impact was tremendous and has gone a long way toward making our experience affordable for all qualified students.” Enrollment for students of color has risen from 6 percent to 15 percent in the last seven years and continues to grow. “We’re not yet where we want to be,” he stresses, “but we’re making meaningful progress on a challenge that’s been historically difficult for schools.”

Helping Kids Beat the Odds

Kennealey’s career path reveals both a personal connection to the transformative power of education and an entrepreneurial mindset. His father grew up in the Mission Hill projects in Boston but was able to attend Boston College High School on a full merit scholarship. “That opportunity transformed the trajectory of my dad’s life and, by extension, mine,” he says.

After earning a psychology degree from Boston College in 1998, Kennealey spent two years of community service in nearby Roxbury as a teacher at Nativity Prep, a tuition-free Jesuit middle school that serves boys of all faiths. “There are Nativity schools in big cities across the country helping low-income kids beat the odds,” he explains. “I didn’t plan a teaching career, but I loved that job.”

Often Jesuit-supported, the Nativity model offers low-income middle school students the advantages of small classes and extended school days. Kennealey was impressed by the school’s impact in Roxbury and subsequently got involved in launching two new Nativity schools, the first of which was in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where he became the founding principal, and then again in Wilmington, Delaware. “As much as I liked teaching,” he says, “the idea of building a nonprofit from the ground up really appealed to me.”

Kennealey then began thinking about extending the Nativity model to the developing world—specifically Rwanda, where he had made contact with a group of indigenous nuns who were trying to open pathways to education for girls following a decade of civil war and genocide. As his goals for starting and running educational ventures expanded, he set his sights on HBS to deepen his finance and leadership skills and to acquire a more strategic worldview.

“Coming from a nonprofit background, I figured I’d be out of my league in some classes. But the faculty and my classmates were terrific,” recalls Kennealey, who received the 2006 Harvard Business School Student Service Award. “I learned to think more broadly about the world, at HBS, and how to solve problems in any environment.”

Despite his newly honed skills, Kennealey found raising millions to start schools in Africa a hard sell. “After Lehman Brothers collapsed in 2008, there was a lot of instability on Wall Street,” he notes. But by partnering in-country with Rwandan educators, government officials, and public health advocates, he was able to start two nonprofit organizations, raise money to build classrooms, and help establish a comprehensive model of education for the country.

“The nuns in Rwanda have an astounding capacity to make the most of any resources they can get their hands on,” he says. “We’d build a block of six or eight classrooms and the next day they were filled with students.”

Triage and Focus

Just prior to his current job, Kennealey held a post with the Archdiocese of Boston, working on strategic initiatives for more than 40 Catholic schools under the leadership of Mary Grassa O’Neill, a senior lecturer at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education and the lead faculty member in the HGSE/HBS/HBS online certificate program for school leaders. “Mary is an amazing person and leader,” he says. “I had managed startup schools, but she introduced me to the challenge of accomplishing goals in a large bureaucracy.”

Also a trained EMT, Kennealey says that triage is a useful skill in managing startups and established organizations alike. “You need to be laser-focused on what is most important and not get distracted by the chaos and noise.”

Kennealey’s most recent priority has been negotiating a public/private partnership to rebuild a crumbling, state-owned 1920s-era stadium across 18th Street from Salesianum. With public funds unavailable, the home field for generations of sports teams from Salesianum and other area schools and community groups was slated to close.

Last fall, after several years of sometimes contentious negotiations, the political will of a newly elected Wilmington mayor and a $16 million gift from a Salesianum alumnus (the third-largest gift to a U.S. Catholic high school) put construction of a new, city-owned sports facility on track for completion in 2020. Kennealey calls the deal a historic moment for the school, which will operate the complex for the city and hold a long-term lease.

“It’s an unorthodox arrangement,” he admits, “but this is a once-a-century opportunity to touch the lives of hundreds of Wilmington-area kids and families. I’m proud to be here at a time when Salesianum can help make something like this happen.”

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Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 2006, Section H

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