A traditional greeting of the Masai people of Africa asks, “Kasserian Ingera” or ”How are the children?” The typical response is, “All the children are well.” Asking this question in our community, I don’t believe we could respond the same way. Our children are not universally well. Their lives have been upended; some have lost loved ones or financial stability. Many are anxious, lonely and fearful. These issues have affected their academics and this is why students must have our collective focus like never before.

Our children need trusted, committed adults to offer them patience, guidance and empathy. We have work to do. It will take all of us. That’s why, as we return to school in Montgomery County, our message is “All Together Now, All for Our Students.” Our students need us to be their partners, to work together and to invest in them.

Investing in the success of students and staff has animated my entire career. Seven years ago, I was the principal of Ridgeview Middle School in Gaithersburg. I spent five of my most formative years leading that school.

Of course, much has changed in the past seven years, and it is easy to focus on the most negative changes. While the unprecedented challenge posed by the COVID-19 pandemic stands out, the related challenges of student mental health, disparities in student opportunities, a loss of trust in our leaders, and threats to student well-being are just as corrosive to our students. 

It is for these reasons that I believe that even though the scope, type and depth of our challenges may be new, the solutions are the same ones that have bound together our students and our community for generations. 

A shared responsibility

Our shared commitment to teaching and learning should bind us together. While we may have different approaches and different beliefs, we are all committed to ensuring that our students succeed. At Ridgewood Middle School, we took a seemingly simple step to increasing student opportunities – we expanded access to Algebra. We decided that educational opportunity should not be an exclusive club, but instead should be open to all students. We challenged educators to find new approaches to help students realize success and we challenged students to take a class that they may have thought was out of their reach. We set high expectations and our educators and students exceeded them. More students than ever took and passed algebra. That is the model I want to follow for our district: create opportunities, challenge students and expect success. 

During my time as principal, our educators at Ridgewood Middle School showed the greatest growth in engagement of any MCPS school. We knew that our team could not effectively serve our students unless they felt a sense of belonging and a sense of growth.  I see a similar challenge today as educators question their role in schools and struggle with the daily frustrations of the work. As a district leader, I owe it to our educators to provide a welcoming environment, support and growth. In turn, our educators owe it to each other and to our students to cultivate a productive, supportive environment.

Working together is the key. We have spent too much of the past two years working against each other – letting our common challenges divide us rather than unite us.  This school year, I invite the MCPS community to renew its commitment to working together. We may not agree on everything, but we all believe that our schools provide the best opportunity for our students and our future.

We will do this work through the lens of my three priorities, namely:

  • Building and rebuilding trust with students, staff and community
  • Supporting mental health and well-being for all students and staff and
  • Returning the district’s focus to equitable teaching and learning.

These areas of focus are essential now as each of us considers how we work in service to our students.

The challenge
To our students, I issue this challenge: Embrace the fantastic opportunities offered to you at school. To everyone in our community, my challenge is this: Be a partner in this work. Together, we can ensure that tomorrow’s promise is brighter. As we begin an exciting new school year, the opportunity is here. Now is the time.

We must work together and be able to say once again, “The children are well.”

Monifa B. McKnight, Ed.D., is in her first year as superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools. She previously has been a teacher, principal and deputy superintendent in the district.

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