In 2000, Monifa McKnight was in her second year of teaching and working at an elementary school in Newport News, Virginia, when a student wrote her a letter she’s never forgotten.
“She said, ‘You are my first African American teacher. I’m so happy to have you. I want to be like you when I grow up,’ and I cried,” says McKnight, who is serving as the interim superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools while the district seeks a replacement for Jack Smith, who retired in June.
Soon after she started teaching at Newsome Park Elementary School, McKnight says she became aware of what she considered the inequity created by the magnet school’s structure. She says she was one of the few teachers of color in the “traditional” program at Newsome that mostly served students of color who lived in the nearby apartment complexes, while its math/science magnet program mostly served students bused in from throughout Newport News.
McKnight says she showed the student’s letter to her principal and suggested ways the school could recruit more teachers of color to help inspire kids in the traditional program. The conversation “motivated me to become a principal,” McKnight says, because she realized leaders had the power to initiate change.
Today, McKnight, 45, holds the distinction of being the first woman and the second person of color—Paul Vance was the first, from 1991 to 1999—to lead Maryland’s largest school system. She’s in an acting role but plans to apply for the permanent position.
McKnight first came to MCPS in 2001 to teach at Parkland Magnet Middle School for Aerospace Technology in Rockville. She taught at Parkland for five years and then served there as an assistant principal for four years before becoming a principal intern at Tilden Middle School in Rockville for a year.
In 2011, she became principal of Ridgeview Middle School in Gaithersburg. During her fifth year there, she was named the 2015 Maryland Middle School Principal of the Year by the Maryland Association of Secondary School Principals and the 2015 Maryland State Principal of the Year by the National Association of Secondary School Principals, according to MCPS.
After serving from 2016 to 2018 as the MCPS director of secondary leadership development programs, she left the district for a top-level position with the Howard County Public School System. She returned to MCPS in August 2019 as the deputy superintendent of schools. Seven months later, she helped lead the district’s efforts to pivot to online learning when the pandemic closed schools in March 2020.
McKnight, who has a 9-year-old son, says that early experience at Newsome Park has resonated throughout her career, reminding her to always “protect the interests of the children you have the responsibility to serve.”
A native of South Carolina, McKnight holds a Master of Science degree in educational leadership from Bowie State University and a doctorate of education in educational leadership and policy from the University of Maryland in College Park.
She lives in Bowie with her son and her husband, Burnus McKnight, a social worker. Bethesda Magazine spoke virtually with her in late June and then again in mid-July.
Why did you become an educator?
The first year of college [at South Carolina State University] I was completely convinced I wanted to be an entrepreneur and I wanted to focus on marketing. I was so excited about my classes. After I had taken my first business class, and my first exposure to econ, I said uh, no. This is not what I enjoy doing. Not what I want to do.
At the time, my sister was in a sorority, and many of her sorority sisters would spend time at our home and they just happened to be education majors. I would see them enjoying downtime relaxing, talking about assignments that they were doing, and I would look at them, like, they’re really enjoying what they’re doing. One sorority sister said, ‘Hey, I want you to help me with this project I’m doing.’ It was a project about making an elementary book about teaching a child how to tell time, and so I helped her make this book for a class.
After that, I said I think I want to take an education class. From there it stole my heart.
Do you remember experiences from your own teaching years and as a principal that have informed the way you are running things now?
The principalship, that role teaches you so many lessons. And to this day I always say that Ridgeview Middle School will always have a very special place in my heart because it taught me things about leadership, it taught me things about myself, it taught me things about the community that I use every day.
As that school was being renovated, I had read a number of letters and emails and I just spent time getting perspective before walking into that leadership role, and so I recognized that students very much felt like the school is a place that they came to, but it maybe didn’t feel as connected as it should for them in some way. I read notes from parents about how they felt in their interactions and how they desired to feel. Since we were in modernization, I said, ‘Well, you know what, let’s start with just the basics: how we design this school, how we decorate the school should acknowledge all of these feelings. It’s almost like, how do we do pride? Our colors are black and red. Let’s make our bulletin boards black and red.’ It’s a small detail, but when our students come in and they see the sea of black and red everywhere, it says to them: We want you to walk into a space of pride. I [was] very intentional about the quotes that we selected to put on the wall.
A student walked up to me one day and she said, ‘Dr. McKnight, you are the best principal ever.’ So when people say things like that to me, I wanna know, well, what is it? Because, honestly, I think of myself as a pretty humble person. So when she said that, I said, ‘Why do you say that?’ She said, ‘Look at this place.’ And she pointed to a sign that just said, ‘Cafeteria, Ready for Lunch’ or something like that. I remember that it was something that I thought was just so simple and I’m like, that’s not even really one of the big things that I spend time on like the quotes, but it meant so much to her. She said, ‘Look at this sign. You think about everything.’ I will never forget that moment because it just indicated to me again the importance of making sure that the environment is one that makes those who live in that environment feel connected and comfortable.
And just working with our staff; I’ll tell you a lesson that I learned: I’m also very, very, very motivated to provide service in the best way possible immediately. Because I’m aware of that, I intentionally pace myself, and my first principalship taught me that. I worked with staff, pulling all the data and saying, ‘Here’s where we are, here’s what we have to do, here’s how we’re gonna get there.’ I would always hold myself accountable by collecting feedback from them in terms of how we were working together.
I remember it was in December, and I got one of our Gallup surveys back and I was like, wow, that doesn’t seem like people are feeling too good. And that wasn’t enough for me. I was like, then I gotta get to the why. The survey results tell me that there’s clearly some discomfort in some places and I need to figure out why. So I scheduled all these smaller staff meetings where I just said, ‘I want to get feedback from you. I want to tell you about why I’m so motivated to get our students where they need to be and to provide the right circumstances for them to be successful. But I also know that I can’t do it alone, and it requires your commitment in your work. How can we do this together to help me understand what I can do to support you in getting this done?’ They were honest, and they shared that ‘there were things we need to learn, there are things that we need to pace, and we are going to get there.’
You had been deputy superintendent for about seven months when the pandemic closed schools. Was there ever a time when you just wanted to give up?
For me, it was never a consideration because I felt like maybe this is the purpose for me coming back to Montgomery County. I know this system so well. I know the people. I know what we need to do. So in many ways I felt like being back here was advantageous in some way to get the work done. The day I was with Dr. Smith when we had the press conference in the county when [the state] closed schools, I came back to the building and within the next day or two I brought all of the leaders together, all of our association leaders, all of our district leaders, and I said, ‘You know, we don’t know what’s going to happen, how long this is going to last, but there’s the interest that we have for our children that we all have a responsibility of protecting. So let’s go ahead and talk right now about what that’s going to require.’ That conversation took place on that day and literally every single day after until we were able to put up the virtual learning platform, which was all of about two or three weeks. That’s one example that solidified for me that I am supposed to be here right now because of the relationships I’ve established in this system over time.
I learned a lot about myself. By nature, I’m just a person who has a lot of energy. I’m a gardener. I can work all day, get home at 6:30, 7 in the evening and trim down rose bushes for an hour or two. That’s the way that I work off energy—physical exertion.
During this pandemic, there were times where there was just no break, like meetings every day, every night, all through the weekend, and I want to say probably after a couple of months you realize, wow, I’m going nonstop. You realize, though, I’m really strong, stronger than I ever thought I needed to be to be able to keep up and do this day, night, weekends, 24/7, so I guess, yeah, I’m sure there were times in which I have felt tired. But I couldn’t think about that.
Now you are running the state’s largest school system. Did you ever envision yourself in this role?
I guess it doesn’t surprise me that I’m sitting here today, but was this ever a dream that I knew long ago that I wanted to be a superintendent? No. I just know that I wanted to serve children. I wanted to serve families. I wanted to serve the community. Along the way, I have been afforded many opportunities to provide that service.
Can you talk about your interest in the permanent job?
I will apply for the position, and that’s important to say because I love the school system, I value it, it’s a great school system and I want to help it be even better than it is right now. I do believe I have the skills, the knowledge, the education and the experience to serve our students well. I also have the unique experience of starting in the school system in 2001 and remaining here all those years with the exception of one year.
No one is a stranger to me because of that, so it just allows me as a leader to be able to make those connections in a way that’s not starting from scratch, and allows me to be able to help move the work along for our students.
Fairly or unfairly, you’re going to be judged as a candidate on the success of this fall’s reopening of schools. What are some of the challenges this school year? For example, the youngest students may have forgotten what it’s like to go to school.
I think particularly about our first and second graders who may have had some months or maybe a year of schooling prior to the pandemic, and so we know much of that is about association with your peers, building that base of relationships, learning a lot of basic skills and groundwork to build on your education. And that will be a challenge that we have to really [meet] for those students—some of who may not have even decided to return in the spring, their first time back is in the fall. That will be a significant time for them to come back and connect with their peers, and some may have to start from scratch.
I know this to be true because I visited some schools virtually prior to us opening up on [March 15, 2021] for a majority of our students. I went to a town hall meeting at one of our elementary schools. I went into some classrooms after they were done. I said to the students, ‘Are you excited about coming back into the classroom on March 15? ’ And I remember [one] said, ‘I’m nervous.’ I knew it, but to hear him say, ‘I’m nervous,’ and then another student said, ‘Yeah, I’m a little scared.’ It really said to me, while we’re excited and we all have been having this conversation about students coming back into the building, for some of them that’s not easy.
We have been able to identify what some of the challenges are over this past spring with our students coming back into school and us connecting to families. We’ve started a number of different outreach opportunities to connect with our families to meet them [where they are], like door knocking, particularly in communities where you know our parents may not respond to traditional ways of engaging, like [completing] surveys. We have these pop-up shops across the county and we say to families, ‘We’re not expecting you to come to us. We’re coming to you and we’re coming to you in spaces in which you come to shop, eat, learn, whatever it may be.’ We’ve done that to try to get a sense of how are they feeling about their child coming back into the building and what do they feel like some of the challenges are.
We will not know until we actually get all of our students back into the building and have some very consistent structures in place what has been the impact on the disruption of learning. Providing assessments in the virtual environment is just not the same. And we know there are a number of other factors that may not allow that to be the most reliable data. So when we are able to get our students back into the building, we’re going to have to really spend some time formally and informally assessing their learning, and we’re going to have to be very inventive, very creative, very thoughtful about how we are building instruction for students in classroom experiences that will allow them to not feel like they’re behind, but to really recognize where there are learning gaps and [make] sure that we’re being mindful in how we address the needs of the individual student.
We may find that some of them, many of them maybe, might not have had the disruption that we would have thought. We still have to challenge them. It’s about meeting every single student where they are. So [for] those who thrive [in] the virtual environment, we still want to be able to present a challenging education to them.
The pandemic changed childhood in a way that probably will take years to comprehend. What steps will MCPS take to make sure that kids are OK?
We have four priority areas that we’ve established as a result of the pandemic. [The first is] mitigating learning disruption. Secondly, really looking at our high-need schools and how do we continue to provide some differentiating supports to them; third, the social-emotional realm for students and staff; and the fourth is utilizing the virtual platform, and that’s our virtual academy. The social-emotional area will be really important. Our counselors actually will be critical because they’re revamping their work—and how they will work with their caseloads and families post this pandemic will be key. They are heroes in their own right in our buildings because they are the heartbeats and they take care of all of the kids in our family. Thinking about how do we plan for a comprehensive counseling program in our schools will be a really important part.
But we’re also working with other partners like the [county] Department of Health and Human Services to help us implement a model like the social work model in our schools to identify the needs of families who have been heavily impacted by COVID-19, [so] that they can get the resources to be successful [and] so that the student can then be successful in our schools. We are definitely going to have our social-emotional lessons for our students. It’s a great way to let them know that we are here and making sure that your wellness is front and center as we get ready for the [school] day. And the same for our staff. Our staff members [were] deeply impacted during this pandemic. No one has been sheltered in any way from this, and so we have to make sure we’re taking care of them as well.
2020 was a year of racial reckoning and political strife that continued into the last school year. How did that impact you as an educator and more importantly as a mother?
When all of this started to happen—on the day that George Floyd was killed, on the day that things happened [at] the Capitol, the insurrection—all of those incidents happened, [and] the first thought I have as an educational leader is: How are the children?
Because they’re seeing what I’m seeing. That’s always my first thought. So after any of those things happen, I get on the phone to contact somebody in my office: Can we get [the] communications [department] or can we get [in touch with] some of our student leaders and figure out how are they, who’s in place to help them process what’s happening, and who’s in place to make sure that they have the support that they need, and that they are safe mentally as well as safe physically?
My feelings go directly to my responsibility. I can’t ever take for granted that, [just] as I have to sit down with my 9-year-old, my husband and I, and have conversations with him about what’s happening, some of our families…may not have the supports in place to be able to do it. As a school system, how can we make sure we have procedures in place to provide those students what they need, whether it is a mentor or whether [it] is a staff leader that facilitates student groups, whether it is our principals who can be the immediate connectors to their students within their schools, but deciding who those key people are to get to the students immediately.
And then of course, I immediately think about my son. I also know that it doesn’t matter [about] my experience, my knowledge, my role; I may not be able to protect him from his experiences when we see situations occur, around race and all that comes along with that. As a mother, I go through certain iterations. I have feelings as an educator, and then I have those same feelings as a mother. It’s almost like I lived through it in cycles, and what I do is I have those conversations with my son and we talk through it.
Where do you find the time to sleep or have any kind of personal life?
I’m not one who requires a lot of sleep. But I do try to be more intentional about it because I have learned the lesson from being mentored [that] sometimes when you’re making really tough decisions, you should just take the time to sleep on it and you wake up with clarity, and I have actually found that to be helpful.
Family is very important to me. We were always taught, my sisters and I, that when you have a role and a responsibility, one, it’s a responsibility so you handle it with great care, and it’s in service to someone. So I never see the work that I do—although yes it is a lot and it requires a lot of time and attention—it doesn’t feel as if it’s in conflict with my life because I am providing a service for others. I just balance that with my family, spending time with them. I’m deeply appreciative of their support in thinking about the challenge of time and knowing that it comes with responsibility.
As the first woman and the first woman of color in charge of MCPS, do you feel like all eyes will be upon you this year?
I’m honored to be in the position, and all eyes are always on you when you’re leading, so it’s something that I must say I’m used to. The other part of this is that I’ve been an educator I feel like all my life. As a teacher, you know all eyes were on you in your classroom, as it should be, then as a principal, from your community, and so it’s just another level of that.
Representation is important because we also have to model for our students what they can do. If there is someone—a student, a parent, anyone, a woman of color—who takes inspiration from where I’m sitting right now and doing the work that I’m doing, I am happy to be able to contribute to that inspiration because we all need it, we all want it.
Julie Rasicot is a contributing editor. The Bethesda Interview is edited for clarity and length.