Bob Kronick: community schools pioneer

Betty Bean
Government/Politics columnist

One afternoon during the late ’90s, Bob Kronick was sitting in a barbeque joint at the Peavine Road I-40 interstate ramp pondering his next move.

He’d spent the day at a Middle Tennessee prison, and he was frustrated. Kronick has a doctorate in social psychology and chaired UT’s Department of Human Services from 1971-2001, when he moved to the College of Education’s Ed Psych and Counseling department. He had developed rehabilitative services for inmates, but things weren’t working as well as he’d hoped. Then he had a revelation:

“It was too late. I wanted to do prevention and realized that I had to go to where I could find children and families – get them early. It’s like robbing banks. You go where children and families are, so I thought, let’s try schools.”

Today, Kronick’s visionary leadership has spawned 14 community schools in Knox County – 12 run by the Great Schools Partnership, the other two, at Pond Gap and Inskip Elementary Schools, by the University of Tennessee, under Kronick’s supervision. The program has expanded into middle schools, and offers a broad array of services and classes to students and families.

But that’s getting ahead of the story.

At first, Kronick didn’t have much luck, but he was relentless and kept looking for ways to keep young people out of prison. He started Project First Offender and Community Alternatives to Prison and a group home for adjudicated delinquents. He worked with Chaplain George Dobler, an old colleague at Lakeshore, and with Loida Velazquez, who was doing pioneering work in college assistance for migrant workers.

But worthy as these projects were, they weren’t getting him to the kids.

Then Charles Q. Lindsey became superintendent, and Kronick again pitched his ideas about community schools. This time it worked.

“Lindsey said, ‘I don’t get it, but take the schools you want.’ He met with (former) Sarah Moore Greene principal Blenza Davis, and that made all the difference, he said.

“Between 1998 and 2001 I was rocking and rolling,” he said. He hooked up with educators from the University of Pennsylvania who had done pioneering work, and has had a collaborative relationship with them ever since (he says he lures them here with visits to Dead End Barbeque).

He got principals like Gussie Cherry and Mamosa Foster on board, plus promising graduate students like Elisa Luna (who later became principal of Inskip Elementary and nearly lost her life when she was shot by a disgruntled teacher she’d fired). The movement picked up steam when James McIntyre became superintendent in 2008.

In 2010, he got finally “big money” infusions: from Randy Boyd’s Pet Safe, the United Way, a business leader in North Carolina who was related to a UT graduate, and from the Sidiqi Charitable Foundation, which funded three and a half gardeners:

“You want fresh organic food? You come to my gardens, I’ll give it to you,” he said, sharing a story about students from Pond Gap’s community school program welcoming a new Sutherland Avenue restaurant to the community with a gift of produce from their garden. The community schools at Pond Gap and Inskip are open 47-48 weeks a year.

“We’d be open more, but I don’t have the staff,” Kronick said.

He was able to bring in in bright young people like Mark Benson from Arizona, who went to work at Pond Gap and is now the Great Schools Partnership’s Community Schools field supervisor. Benson considers Kronick his mentor and says there is no competition between the university-assisted schools and the GSP schools.

“Knoxville’s got a lot of good pieces, and I think we’re really ahead of the curve. We’re going to be the model for a lot of cities and townships who are thinking of creating a community schools initiative.”

He describes Kronick as “…a bull in a china shop. He’s non-stop. He keeps himself moving and focused on what he needs to do. We work closely with the UT coordinators and we have the same purpose. We want to make the community schools strategy grow in East Tennessee.”

Next week: A look at individual schools and programs.

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