SCSU alumna driven by ‘fierce work ethic’; Orangeburg native leads Md. district | Local

DONNA HOLMAN T&D Correspondent

The leader of the largest school system in Maryland says South Carolina State University put her on the path to becoming an educator.

“My interest in education was sparked at South Carolina State University, where I initially thought that I would study business and marketing,” Orangeburg native Dr. Monifa Bellinger McKnight said.

“However, after seeing the joy that the students in the education school were experiencing from their classes, I decided to become an education major, which has been one of the best decisions I have ever made,” she said.

McKnight was initially decided to be the acting superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) following last year’s retirement of Dr. Jack R. Smith. In February, she was named superintendent.

She celebrated with family and friends in Orangeburg in March.

MCPS serves 165,000 children and is recognized as the 14th largest school system in the United States.

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“It is not lost on me that I am shattering the glass ceiling in MCPS as I become the district’s first female superintendent, nor is it lost on us that I am the second Black superintendent in the district,” McKnight said.

After McKnight’s graduation from SC State, she left Orangeburg and moved to Newport News, Virginia, to teach fourth and fifth grades at Newsome Park Magnet Elementary School.

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“In my first year of teaching, one of my fourth-grade students, Karla, left a note for me that I will never forget. She said that, as her first African-American teacher, she saw herself in me. My classroom sparked a desire in her to follow in my footsteps and become a teacher,” McKnight said.

“Those are the sorts of relationships educators cultivate with all students, forming the lifeblood of everything we do. And these are the connections that mold the heart of our schools,” she said.

McKnight believes that her passion for service began as a child growing up in South Carolina.

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She looks up to her grandmother, who in the 1950s raised 13 children on her own after the passing of her husband, McKnight’s grandfather. She appreciates that her grandmother instilled in the generations that followed, including her generation, the importance of service through a “fierce work ethic.”

“Bringing together an orientation towards service with that work ethic has allowed me to discover my purpose. Service is about bringing to others what we prioritize in the privacy of our own homes,” McKnight said.

“My mother didn’t just make sure that my two sisters and I had food on the table every night, as a food services worker, she dedicated herself to ensuring that the children in our local school system had meals that were prepared with that exact same level of care,” McKnight said.

She applauds her stepfather for devotedly keeping their house in order while exacting that same type of care and attention to detail in other facilities as he carried out his duties as a building service worker.

“My parents paved the way for me and now it is my turn to pay it forward. Ayden, my 10-year old son and the joy of my life, is my best teacher. Watching him grow and learn introduces new perspectives into my life every day,” McKnight said.

“Spending time with Ayden, my husband Burnus, my mother, my two sisters and their children, as well as my dog, Lizzie, comprises most of what I do in my free time,” she said.

She added that she also finds time to exercise with a group of women many nights of the week and weekend mornings to decompress from the pressures of work and to focus on her own health and well-being.

McKnight firmly believes in the power and strength of family and community. Moving from South Carolina to Virginia to Maryland has given her opportunities to experience diversity and various cultures and has shown her the importance of the community.

“For almost all of the past 20 years, I have worked in Montgomery County Public Schools as a teacher, teacher leader, assistant principal, principal and central office administrator. Taken together, my experience growing up personally, in South Carolina and professionally, in Montgomery County, has built my deep belief of the power of people and the power of communities,” she said.

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As superintendent, McKnight’s goals will be “rebuilding trust and engaging stakeholders, ensuring physical health and social-emotional wellness, and refocusing on teaching and learning.” As important as these priorities are in Montgomery County, I would venture to say that the school systems across the country are focused on similar areas, so that we can rebuild public education to help all students maximize their potential in the pandemic’s aftermath.”

“I approach this role with a relentless work ethic and an unwavering belief in the limitless potential of all children. That purpose is inscribed in the motto of Parkland Middle School, where I began my teaching career in Montgomery County: ‘Every student, whatever it takes,’ she said.

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