On Tuesday, Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) took a historic step, selecting Dr. Monifa McKnight as superintendent and who becomes the first woman and second Black to lead the schools.
The school board unanimously voted to appoint McKnight, who previously served as interim superintendent — an announcement that drew vigorous applause from many in attendance at the meeting and an emotional response from McKnight.
“It is emotional because I do not take this responsibility lightly. I care for the kids in the school system as I do for my own,” McKnight said. “This is a moment that calls for leading with empathy while in pursuit of academic excellence. I plan to place my focus on understanding the educational needs and interests of students and teachers, while prioritizing the safety and well-being of everyone in our school community.”
While the Montgomery County Board of Education did not provide details on the number of people who applied for the position, they did indicate that after a preliminary round of interviews, the field had been narrowed to four finalists. The names of those finalists have not been shared with the public.
School Board President Brenda Wolff, in a statement, said McKnight emerged as the best person to lead the school district.
“With her long and distinguished record serving the MCPS community, Dr. McKnight is uniquely qualified to lead the district during this time,” she said. “She intimately understands the challenges our community faces and believes deeply in the limitless potential of our students and educators.”
Wolff added that a national search, which included an opportunity for public engagement, had to be conducted even if the final choice, as in this case, came down to one who had already been an employee in the school system.
The need to find a new superintendent became a top priority for MCPS after Dr. Jack Smith, who since 2016 had served in the position, retired last summer.
McKnight, a former teacher, principal and district administrator, joined MCPS in 2001. She holds degrees from Bowie State University and the University of Maryland.
She took over as interim superintendent in March 2001 and directed the return to full-time in person learning in the fall. Following a huge spike in COVID-19 cases, several schools closed as a safety precaution. But mixed messages, confusion and fear evoked harsh criticism of MCPS from many parents as COVID cases broke the 10,000 barrier after the winter break.
McKnight, who’s expected to sign a four-year contract, promised on Tuesday to restore the public’s trust. She will also have to tackle several issues within the school community including violence. A shooting at Magruder High School last month involving two students remains under investigation.
Comments posted on social media included both positive and negative statements from parents but McKnight, who brings the education, experience and skills needed for the position, certainly knows that her job will not be easy.
In January, the Montgomery County Education Association issued a no-confidence vote in MCPS leadership, citing concerns over staffing shortages, student absences and a lack of transparent communication. In a statement Tuesday, the union congratulated McKnight and promised to work with her to improve working conditions.
Also on Tuesday, the Montgomery County Council issued a statement following the selection of McKnight.
“The Council congratulates the Montgomery County Board of Education on their selection of Dr. Monifa B. McKnight as the next superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools … [She] has led the school system through public health and safety challenges by drawing on her extensive experience working in our schools . . . and successfully moved up the ranks as an assistant principal, principal, deputy superintendent and interim superintendent.”
“Dr. McKnight is the first African-American woman to be selected by the Board of Education to become the superintendent of MCPS, which is Maryland’s largest school system and the fourteenth largest in the U.S. She is a relentless advocate for educational equity and excellence and is a champion for advancing the interests and well-being of children. She also is committed to professional development and continuous improvement across the MCPS system.”
“While we understand that this appointment is contingent upon approval by the state superintendent of schools, we are grateful to Dr. McKnight for her ongoing service to our students and their families. We look forward to continuing to work with her in this new role.”
McKnight shared a letter with the community and her colleagues which reflected her pride in being chosen as superintendent.
“For 20 years, I have worked in partnership with so many parents, students, teachers and administrators. I have had the privilege to have grown up in this school system as a teacher, teacher leader, principal, central office administrator and deputy superintendent. Today marks the beginning of the next phase of our shared journey.”
“This is a moment for which I have prepared my entire professional life, the majority of which I have spent here in Montgomery County Public Schools. Together, there is nothing we cannot accomplish,” McKnight stated.