Kermit Keenum, 76, served as Cobb County School District superintendent between 1973 and 1980 and again between 1989 and 1992. His book, which took him about four years to write, is about how a young man raised in a farming family in northeast Mississippi became superintendent of one of the biggest and most notable school districts in the country.
“I wanted to capture the family of a sharecropper and how things changed in my lifetime,” he told a group of about 100 students at North Cobb on Wednesday. “It doesn’t take you forever to make changes that you want to make. You need what you’re doing here at North Cobb, the best education that you can get.”
Keenum told the students, who were from North Cobb’s Georgia Local Studies, Ethnic Studies, Interact Club and Macroeconomic classes, that they needed to prepare themselves for their next steps in life.
“The only door that I could walk through as a sharecropper, or the son of a sharecropper, was the doors of educational institutions that gave me an opportunity to get the training and then the opportunity to do a number of different things that I never dreamed as a teenager that I would have the opportunity to do,” he said.
A sharecropper is a farmer who lives on and farms someone else’s land. Throughout Keenum’s childhood, he said he, his parents and six siblings lived on 12 different farms, but he continued to attend school, eventually earning his diploma.
After earning an associate degree from a local junior college and eventually a bachelor’s degree from Mississippi State University, he moved his family to Marietta in 1960.
He worked at Marietta High for few years while earning a master’s degree from the University of Georgia before accepting an assistant teaching principal position at North Cobb in 1963.
Keenum helped open Awtrey Middle School in Kennesaw in 1965 at 29 years old when the system integrated schools, and in 1973 he was promoted to superintendent.
When Keenum was named superintendent the first time, there were just over 60 schools in the county district serving 47,000 students on a budget of about $44 million a year. Today, Cobb serves about 106,000 students in more than 110 schools on a budget of about $875 million.
“I’ve seen a lot of changes in this community, a lot of changes at the school district and I was honored and am still honored to have been a part of that,” he said. “I hope this book will give some of the educators of today, as well as some of those that have worked in the past, a reference that they can go to.”
Whitney Watson, 17, said Keenum taught her that with hard work and determination, she can accomplish anything.
“I’m not really sure what my future holds, but I know now that if he can achieve all he’s done and just work hard, I know I can do it too,” she said.
Classmate Sarah Caesar, also 17, said she thought Keenum’s advice was critical for teenagers.
“His experiences taught us a lot about how to live life and not give up,” she said.
The school’s Interact Club president Jeremy Gibson thought it was fascinating that someone who grew up in what was considered a poor environment and lifestyle could be such a successful person.
“He endured so much in his life but is full of triumph,” he said.
Keenum spent a majority of Wednesday at North Cobb and took time after school to sign books for students and visit with the faculty.
The public is invited to a book signing and meet and greet with Keenum today at the Roberts School Community and Education Center, 4681 School Street in Acworth, between 4 and 6 p.m.