A life of advocacy and service

Trenton names school after educational support professional

There are schools named after presidents, governors and other historic figures. There are even schools named after teachers and administrators. But this year, Trenton named one of its schools after a woman who served the district as a paraprofessional and parent liaison. 

This makes Darlene C. McKnight Elementary School at least the second school in state to be named after an educational support professional (ESP). The other is Lawton C. Johnson Middle School in Summit, which was renamed in 2004 after the school’s secretary/office manager.

According to the long list of distinguished guests invited to speak at a dedication ceremony held at the school on Oct. 19, there was no one better to name a school after than McKnight.

McKnight was well-known within the schools and far beyond them. She did extensive work with churches, community-based organizations, shelters, soup kitchens, and Trenton Paraprofessionals Association (TPA) initiatives such as NJEA FAST. 

“When her daughter, Shelly, entered kindergarten, McKnight became a school volunteer and a parent organizer,” retired Trenton teacher Jacqueline Tolbert-Beverly read from McKnight’s biography. “By the time her son, Louis, entered kindergarten, she was well established as an advocate.”

McKnight also worked to stem violence by bringing together, at every opportunity, groups of activists engaged in the work to create peaceful communities. Trenton City Council President and Mothers Against Violence founder Kathy McBride recalled that their friendship began when McKnight introduced her to Princeton’s Coalition for Peace Action, soon after learning of McBride’s organization. 

McKnight also served on the TPA negotiations team and as secretary for several contracts. 

“Not only was she an advocate for the children and families of Trenton, she was an advocate for her union family,” said NJEA UniServ Field Rep Jenn Larsen.

“It’s often said that we have to provide service to humankind for the space that we occupy on this earth,” said Sen. Shirley Turner. “Darlene was someone who paid her rent in full for the space—a space that she didn’t just occupy, she committed her life to it.”

Children pay much less attention to job titles and academic degrees. Instead, they remember those who make them feel important, valued and loved.

“She left you with a word, a gesture—something to let you know she loved you,” said Darren Green, a Trenton community advocate. “You move differently when you feel loved.”

“She may not have had ‘doctor’ in front of her name, but she was a doctor to us,” concluded TPA President Betty Glenn.

McKnight loved Trenton, and Trenton loved her back. But she is not alone. 

All across New Jersey and the nation, there are bus drivers, secretaries, custodians, paraprofessionals, aides, food service staff, maintenance workers, security staff and others who are making positive and permanent differences in the lives of the students and communities they serve. While not every ESP will have a school named after them, their names are in the hearts of students and families for years, even decades, after they leave school. 

Are there other schools in the state named after educational support professionals? Let the Review editor know about them at NJEAReview@njea.org.