By Kathryn Coulibaly

Stacy Yanko leaves a metaphorical—and sometimes literal—trail of glitter wherever she goes. She is a warm presence whose smile is matched by her enthusiasm for the task at hand, no matter what that task may be. Ask any of the students she assists as a guidance secretary at Hopatcong High School, which serves students in grades eight through 12, or her colleagues in the district, and they will echo the sentiment that her friend and co-worker Brittany Huling shared: “Stacy sparkles in everything she does. She’s shown me how to be a great employee, a great secretary and a great NJEA member.”

Yanko greets students and staff as soon as they walk into the guidance office, a cheerful space full of college banners, Naviance posters, and many photos of Yanko with students and her colleagues. Naviance posters provide motivation and inspiration for aspiring college students. And, yes, there is a little bit of sparkle in the form of a pink rhinestone computer mouse. But Yanko’s warm smile and obvious love for her work far outshine the rhinestones.

“I get to do a little bit of everything,” Yanko said. “I primarily support our school counselors. I take care of all the registrations and withdrawals of students here at the high school. I help our students and staff every day by printing things out, making copies, working on the grade report, transcripts, transcript requests, HIB reporting and student of the month awards with the main office.”

NJEA ESP of the Year Stacy Yanko at her desk in the guidance office at Hopatcong High School

From Middlesex County College to William Paterson

Yanko grew up in Middlesex County and graduated from John P. Stevens High School in Edison before attending Middlesex County College for two years and earning her associate’s degree, a move that she recommends to many students.

“I really enjoyed Middlesex County College,” Yanko said. “They had smaller class sizes, I was able to work, and there were still so many opportunities to get involved in campus activities. I was a member of the choir, a girls’ ensemble, and I got a job working in the student activities department, so I always knew what was happening. When I was ready to move on to a four-year institution, all my credits transferred.”

Yanko went on to William Paterson University and was a double major in early childhood education and psychology. She had completed all the coursework for her early childhood degree and its first practicum, but her desire to finish school quickly and begin working led her to drop that degree and focus on completing her psychology degree. She then began working with chronically mentally ill adults.

Getting involved in the union

After Yanko married and had children, she stayed home to care for them until an opportunity arose to work at Tulsa Trail Elementary School, a position she gained by being a fierce advocate for children.

“I was the vice president of the parent-teacher organization at my children’s school,” Yanko recalled. “Due to financial issues, the district cut all the staffing in the libraries. I really believe that children need the resources and expertise that librarians offer, so I made sure the principal knew how I felt about this decision. When the district decided to hire staff for the library, the principal told me to apply.”

Yanko’s first experience with her union came shortly after she began working as a library aide in March 2006. (She later worked with the district and her union to change the word “aide” to “paraprofessional.”) Yanko was upset about something that was going on in the district. She was alone, crying in the library about the issue, when her union president at the time, Anita Feliciano, approached her. Feliciano listened to Yanko and then gave her advice that would change her life.

“She said, ‘Stacy, you have to get involved. You have to learn how things work so that you can change them.’ I’d only been employed by the district for two years at that point, but Anita encouraged me and said that the association would pay to send me to NJEA conferences. I went to my first NJEA ESP [Educational Support Professional] Conference that year, and I’ve never missed one since then.”

Since then, Yanko has held many positions in her local association, at NJEA, and at the national level.

A leader who motivates others

Yanko is the president of the Hopatcong Office Personnel Association (HOPA) and previously served as the Sussex County Education Association president. In addition, she has served on numerous NJEA committees, such as Leadership, Public Relations, and the ESP Committee. From 2010 through 2016, she served as a delegate to the NEA Representative Assembly.

One of Yanko’s strengths is her willingness to push others forward. Yanko gave up her position on the NJEA ESP Committee in order to provide another member with the opportunity to serve at the statewide level. That member, Gillian Raye, is now the chair of the NJEA Member Benefits Committee.

“I take pride in helping others find their place and giving them leadership opportunities.”

Yanko doesn’t shrink from doing the hard work, either. Her union, HOPA, is separate from the larger Hopatcong Education Association. With 11 members, Yanko has taken on extra responsibilities, in addition to serving as president, while she helps her fellow union members learn the process and begin to take on new roles.

One of Yanko’s proudest achievements is her advocacy on behalf of ESPs at the national level. Thanks in part to her efforts, and the coalition she helped build with delegates from California, every NEA committee except one for aspiring teachers, is mandated to include at least one classroom teacher and one ESP. It took years of effort to accomplish, but now ESP members have a confirmed seat at the table.

Yanko says the best part of her job is helping students and her colleagues.

A double honor for Hopatcong

Hopatcong has a lot to be proud of. In addition to Stacy’s honor, Danielle Kovach, a teacher at Tulsa Trail Elementary School, was named the New Jersey State Teacher of the Year in 2011. This double-honor comes as no surprise to Stacy’s supervisor, Jeff Hallenbeck, the co-principal of Hopatcong High School.

“Having Stacy as the ESP of the Year and Dani Kovach as the Teacher of the Year really validates them and introduces other people across the state to the wonderful things that are going on in our schools,” Hallenbeck said. “Dani and Stacy really reflect our Hopatcong values of honor, hard work, and dedication.”

“Recognition is important, even though school employees don’t do it for that,” Yanko said. “But when you’re recognized for doing what you think is right every day, it makes you feel supported and encouraged and it makes others feel elevated. It showcases what’s good about our public schools and what’s good about education in New Jersey.”

Earning the distinction of NJEA ESP of the Year is something Yanko had hoped for but didn’t believe possible.

“I had dreamed about being named NJEA ESP of the Year, but I didn’t think that it would happen because I know the amazing members we have and the incredible things they do in their communities, in their associations and in their careers.”

Yanko’s co-workers were much more confident that she would be recognized. In fact, two of her colleagues, Huling and school counselor Linda Padula, worked together to nominate her for the Hopatcong ESP of the Year and the Sussex County ESP of the Year. 

“Stacy is not only an exceptional colleague, but she is also tireless in her community service activities,” Padula said. “She applied for grants from NJEA and got gifts and supplies to help support our Family Appreciation Night. She is always available and enthusiastic about participating in activities with the students like chaperoning events and judging contests. On top of that, she is involved in her union at the local, county, state and national levels.”

As a measure of the respect and admiration her community holds her in, this is actually Yanko’s second time being named the Hopatcong and Sussex County ESP of the Year. In 2011, she was afforded this honor after only working in the district for five years.

Service to school and community

Yanko takes a great deal of pride in her community. In addition to serving on the parent-teacher organization, Yanko has been a book fair volunteer, team mom for the Hopatcong Warriors Pee Wee Football Team, coach of the Hopatcong Warriors cheer team, teacher assistant for religious education classes at Our Lady of the Lake Church, and president of the Hopatcong High School Football Parents Association.

This commitment to guiding and supporting children makes her an excellent resource for the students she serves. Yanko does a lot of work helping them and their families navigate the college application process and assisting them with scholarship applications. It’s a process she is very familiar with after guiding her two children, Jonathan and Alexa, through it alongside her husband, Michael, who is a police officer and a member of his union, the Police Benevolent Association (PBA).

“Graduation day is one of the best days of the year,” Yanko said. “Seeing the smiles on the faces of the graduating students as they receive their diplomas makes my heart happy. Making a difference in the lives of our students is what being an educator is all about.”

Yanko does not minimize the hard work and effort that has brought her here. It has meant sacrifices and the nearly impossible task of juggling family, friends, work, volunteering and union activism.

“This award helped my family understand why I am so involved in my union,” Yanko said. “My family would sometimes question the nights and weekends I spent on association or school activities. I would try to explain that not every union is like ours. We are an education association. We not only advocate, we educate, and we do a lot to promote our members in many different ways. Now my family is seeing the impact of all that work and they are so proud and happy. My children even shared the news of the award on their social media!”

A meaningful recognition

Being named ESP of the Year means a lot to Yanko.

“It means I’m a role model; that I’m looked upon as someone who can be counted on to get the job done,” she said. “I work with such amazing people and to receive their respect means more to me than I can put into words. The opportunity to represent our members and our state is an amazing honor. I’m very humbled and grateful.”

Yanko believes that each day brings a new opportunity to advocate for members, educate members, and provide them with the opportunities to lead the way.

“I am passionate about our association and the work that our members do each day,” she said. “I hope to inspire education support professionals to become active, confident, involved members of our association at all levels. I am proud of each of the roles that I have had the opportunity to fill at each association level. I look forward to what lies ahead, and I look forward to continuing my journey inspiring others to believe in themselves and our association.”   

As the 2020 NJEA ESP of the Year, Yanko has already been nominated for the NEA ESP of the Year award. She will attend the NEA ESP Conference in New Orleans, Louisiana and will receive a Disney vacation, funded by NJEA. Yanko will also receive an ESP of the Year ring, she will be a featured speaker at the NJEA ESP Conference and will be honored at the 2020 NJEA Convention.

Kathryn Coulibaly is the associate editor of the NJEA Review and provides content and support to njea.org. She can be reached at kcoulibaly@njea.org.

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