2021 | Schools

More women take charge in Montgomery County education leadership roles

Leaders hope young women see ‘what they can accomplish’

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As education organizations recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, some worry about the potential for disruption along with changes in leadership. Others see potential.

In a profession dominated by women but often led by men, education advocates for decades have pushed for leadership that more accurately reflects the people they represent.

In Montgomery County, a handful of organizations will or have recently named new people to fill their top positions, including the public school system. Nearly all will be led by women, some for the first time.

And students are noticing.

“So much of our current teaching workforce is made up of women, but then, oftentimes in educational systems, when you look up and you see who’s actually making the decisions at higher levels, that’s not necessarily reflected there, so I think it’s really huge that we’re getting diverse female voices in higher levels of leadership,” said Hana O’Looney, a Richard Montgomery High School junior recently elected as the next student member of the Montgomery County Board of Education.

Beginning Tuesday, Montgomery County Public Schools for the first time — even temporarily — will be led by a woman, Monifa McKnight, a former principal.

She will be joined by an all-female Board of Education (when O’Looney is sworn in in July), the heads of all three MCPS employee unions, and Anne Khademian, the new executive director of The Universities at Shady Grove, making Montgomery County’s education landscape unique. Each woman stepping into a new role this summer will replace a man, as did Kademian, who was hired in September.

According to a study led by University of Pennsylvania Professor Richard Ingersoll, roughly 76% of public school teachers were women in the 2015-16 school year, up from 67% in 1980.

Conversely, national data from the National Center for Education Statistics indicates that about half of school administrators are women.

“I think it’s a very powerful statement about leadership and where we are in leadership. And I think there’s also this really great opportunity for all of these new leaders to work together and really collaborate authentically and do the best that they can for kids in Montgomery County,” said Chris Lloyd, the president of the county teachers union, who will be replaced by Jennifer Martin at the end of June.

Martin added that it will be beneficial for people in the community, both young and old, to see women in so many prominent, influential positions, because “it’s not just men who have presuppositions about what women can do.”

The changes, she said, will show many that women are capable of leading school systems through challenging times, notably as they recover from the pandemic.

School board member Shebra Evans, the first Black woman to serve as president of the board from 2018 to 2020, agreed.

“It’s important for people to see us in those positions and key roles, and not only for women, but for students in general,” Evans said. “If you can’t see it, you can’t imagine it, so hopefully it’ll show our younger generation, in particular our young girls, what they can achieve.”

During her tenure as president, the board was composed solely of women for the first time in school district history. There has been at least one woman on the board since members were first elected in 1955, according to district records.

Focusing on inclusion

Montgomery College is also led by a woman, DeRionne Pollard, though she will resign this summer to take a new job in Nevada. Plans for her replacement have not been announced.

And while women are taking the reins of many institutions, there are still men in influential positions.

The county’s top leader, County Executive Marc Elrich, for example, is a former teacher and has influence over many budget and funding decisions. In recent months, he decided to cut funding for school resource officers from the next fiscal year’s budget — a move that one school board members said “took the choice away” from the board about whether to keep the program.

Two of the three members of the County Council’s Education and Culture Committee are men, as are many executive staff members in MCPS and the college campuses.

And, at the state level, on Thursday, the Maryland State Board of Education announced its next state superintendent of schools, Mohammed Choudhury, who will replace Karen Salmon when she retires at the end of June.

In Montgomery County, O’Looney — who succeeds Nick Asante as the student board member — said she doesn’t see a lack of male representation on the school board or in other top roles as a major problem. Instead, she sees opportunity.

For so long, she said, women have at times felt excluded from decision-making processes, and will remember how that felt, even as they work to bring a different perspective to the table.

It will be important as each institution deals with financial pressure, reacclimating to buildings, addressing social and emotional challenges, and assessing the academic impact of the pandemic.

“If anything, I think it means we will make a more focused, targeted outreach to other populations — like boys and men, those with different gender identities and other backgrounds — and that it will be at the forefront of our minds,” O’Looney said. “I know that just because the Board of Education and the superintendent are all women, that doesn’t mean that male voices are going to be excluded from the conversation.”

Montgomery County education institutions and their top leader as of July 1:

• MCPS: Monifa McKnight
• Montgomery County Board of Education: Brenda Wolff (all members are women)
• Montgomery College: DeRionne Pollard
• Universities at Shady Grove: Anne Khademian
• Montgomery County Education Association: Jennifer Martin
• Montgomery County Association of Administrators and Principals: Christine Handy
• SEIU Local 500: Pia Morrison
• Montgomery County Council of Parent Teacher Associations: Cynthia Simonson

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com