Principal's world travels shaped views on education

One would think it would be easy to find a former women’s basketball star named Renee Kelly.

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Former professional basketball player Renee Kelly is the principal of the new Richmond County Technical Career Magnet School. "I envision this to be a world-class school," Kelly said of the school. "Going into education has been a wonderful award," Kelly said of her career.  EMILY ROSE BENNETT/STAFF
EMILY ROSE BENNETT/STAFF
Former professional basketball player Renee Kelly is the principal of the new Richmond County Technical Career Magnet School. "I envision this to be a world-class school," Kelly said of the school. "Going into education has been a wonderful award," Kelly said of her career.

She is the principal at a magnet school in Richmond County.

But don’t call Renee Kelly, the principal of C.T. Walker Traditional Magnet School. She will direct you to the other Renee Kelly.

The “other” Renee Kelly is the principal at the newly formed Richmond County Technical Career Magnet School – and once was one of the top 12 female players in the nation.

“We joke about that so often,” Kelly said with a laugh.

Settled behind a desk in her sparsely decorated office in the old Joseph R. Lamar Elementary School, she recalled childhood days spent grudgingly pecking out notes during piano lessons while laughter and the sound of rubber on pavement wafted in through the windows of her home on 15th Avenue. Her lesson couldn’t be finished fast enough for her to join her brothers and the other neighborhood boys on the basketball court across the street.

“It just became a knack,” she said.

That knack and a little bit of talent landed her a spot on the University of Missouri women’s basketball team, where she played for four years after she graduated from Richmond Academy in 1983.

“I had an agent out of New York call and say, ‘Hey, how would you like to play ball?’ ” she said. “I was like, ‘Sure, why not?’”

It was the 1980s. The Women’s National Basketball Association wouldn’t form until 1996. Female players who continued with the sport after college played at the international level, Kelly said.

So she moved to Italy.

“I think for me it was a wonderful opportunity because I had the opportunity to interact at a different level with people that I didn’t have any exposure to prior to coming there,” she said.

She learned the language well enough to order food and interact with her teammates.

She also noticed the education system. Students went home for two- and three-hour lunch breaks. At dinner, the children drank wine but didn’t drink to excess.

“It was definitely a learning experience,” she said.

A year later, she was ready to try something different. Her agent landed her a spot on a team in Brazil. With that team, she played in Paraguay, Ecuador and Taiwan and fell in love with the language, culture and terrain.

She stayed for five years.

“I think the hardest thing for me there was the poverty,” Kelly said. “It was a different environment, seeing the kids not having the opportunity to get a public education, not being able to go to school because they were collecting tin,” she said. “That was just so devastating.”

When the United States decided to try women’s basketball in the early 1990s, the Liberty Basketball Association was formed to play a promotional game in Detroit. Kelly was invited to play.

Despite the cold, wet weather, she had to wear a unitard.

“It was kind of degrading, but they wanted the unitards to get the males sort of engaged in it,” she said. “And the ball was a little smaller than the standard girls’ ball now, and the rim was a half-inch shorter.”

Because it was a promotional game, it included a dunking contest. A photo of her dunking the ball in her unitard made the front page of USA Today.

She decided she’d had enough.

Her brother, who had joined the Marines, had just been sent to fight in Kuwait, and Kelly was needed at home in Augusta. So she bid farewell to her teammates in Brazil.

“I think my true vocation was education,” she said.

At Missouri, she had earned bachelor’s degrees in marketing and education, so she went to work teaching at Tubman Middle School for a year. Then she spent 10 years as a procurement contract specialist with a job-training program.

That didn’t satisfy her, so she became a teacher and a coach at Westside High School and stayed for 10 years. In 2006 she became assistant principal at Richmond Academy and this year stepped into the role of principal at the newly formed technical career magnet school.

Her experiences with basketball and travel have definitely influenced her role as an educator.

She was fascinated by the elementary school system in Brazil, where children kept toothbrushes with them and brushed their teeth after lunch. In Europe, students choose a career path early and rarely stray from it, but industry seemed to offer more support to the educational system.

What she learned is that education – and preparation for the workforce – goes beyond the classroom.

So at her school jazz plays in the lunchroom while the students eat and interact with one another. Checkers, chess and dominoes games are available. Students are learning to communicate in ways that go beyond mere socialization.

‘The kids get an opportunity to interact, but they’re also working on those critical thinking skills,” Kelly said. “That’s real world. That becomes part of that work environment.”


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