ACSA’s Ferd. Kiesel Memorial Distinguished Service Award winner Tony Knight serves as a mentor to Oak Park USD’s Rocket and Aviation Club.
Knight gives students wings to soar
November 1, 2021
Name: Anthony “Tony” Knight, Ed.D. Award: Ferd. Kiesel Memorial Distinguished Service Award Title: Superintendent, Oak Park USD (retired)
On the first day of school, Tony Knight visits his district’s middle school. The white-haired superintendent stands in front of a group of nervous 10- and 11-year-olds and tells them they will be loved and cared for by the staff at their school.
“You look at their faces when you say that and you’d think they’d laugh or giggle or something like that. But they don’t. They relax,” said Knight, who retired as superintendent of Oak Park Unified School District earlier this year. “No one ever told me that when I was in school. That’s something that needs to be said to kids.”
Saying what needs to be said. Creating a “climate of care” for people and the earth. Helping others to understand the world. These are a few of education’s imperatives according to Knight, this year’s winner of ACSA’s highest honor — the Ferd. Kiesel Memorial Distinguished Service Award.
Knight studied education at Pepperdine University and started teaching in 1979. He earned his master’s degree and administrative services credential in 1982.
It wasn’t long before he was offered a principal job at a continuation high school in Oak Park Unified School District, a place where he says staff and students are treated with dignity and respect. Knight loved working with people in the district so much he spent 39 years there — 17 as superintendent.
“I never applied for a job in any other school district my whole time,” he said. “I didn’t necessarily aspire to be a superintendent, I wanted to just work in Oak Park.”
One of his first challenges upon becoming superintendent in 2004 was declining enrollment. Knight and the board worked to make Oak Park a district of choice that would admit students from outside its boundaries. Enrollment doubled in the district, bringing with it revenue to support the district’s signature programs. Today, more than 40 percent of Oak Park’s students come from outside the community.
“I’ve talked to hundreds of parents over the years in this program. They’ve told me that the program really saved their kids,” he said. “They came to a place that really cared about their kids.”
Under his leadership, the district has also seen a tremendous gain in academic achievement, winning numerous awards and recognitions such as the CDE’s Exemplary School District (one of only 22 California school districts to be so named), California Exemplary Career Technical Education Program, and Five-Star GATE Award. Oak Park is also one of California’s few districts that has an “all blue” California School Dashboard.
“The level of success that OPUSD has garnered is in large part due to Tony’s focus on each individual that comprises, and has comprised, OPUSD over the years,” said Barbara Laifman, former Oak Park USD board of education member. “Tony leads with loyalty, integrity and dedication, always attuned to the best interests of students, staff and the community.”
Not satisfied to just “do well,” Knight has also focused on “doing good” by practicing and teaching sustainability. As a principal of Oak Hills Elementary in the 1990s, Knight emphasized recycling and composting well before many schools did so. He carried these ideals to the district level as he oversaw efforts to plant trees and install solar panels. The district adopted green cleaning and pest management practices and the nutrition program began serving plant-forward, locally sourced meals in zero-waste lunchrooms.
In 2013, the district was approached with an unusual recycling idea: to use refurbished shipping containers to replace aging classrooms. The new permanent classrooms are net zero buildings that are super-insulated and use no virgin materials.
These efforts have garnered national recognition for Oak Park as the U.S. Green Building Council’s Best Green School System and as the first California district to receive the U.S. Green Ribbon Schools Award.
As a result of Knight’s work with the Commission for the California Environmental Literacy Initiative, California’s new Next Generation Science Standards include teaching about environmentalism and climate change.
“Schools cannot be afraid of using those terms and being blunt with students and parents. It’s something that kids need to learn from an early age and what their role is in it,” he said. “You have to tell kids about it. You have to teach about it. But then you have to also practice it as a school district sincerely and model it for everybody.”
A proponent of project-based learning, Knight has consistently worked to incorporate problem solving methods and critical thinking development into the learning process. He also mentors the district’s Rocket and Aviation Club, which most recently placed 14th out of 900 teams at the American Rocketry Challenge. Over the last decade, the program has generated interest in STEM careers, especially among girls and other under-represented groups.
“I get to spend hours in the car driving out to the desert for launches,” Knight said. “You’ve got to like kids if you’re going to be in this program, because they love to talk!”
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, Knight recognized early on that this would not be a short-term situation. The district invested heavily in training teachers to teach remotely and stayed closed until February 2021.
“We were really sensitive as a school district. We worked really closely with our teacher’s union and classified union on every step of the way through the opening plan,” Knight said. “I was relentless in keeping the kids and the staff safe.”
As students returned, Knight made sure schools were conducive to outdoor learning, which research shows is not only safer from COVID but also supports deeper learning. The district bought recycled-plastic tables and installed shade sails and wi-fi to make it easier to take lessons outside.
“As administrators, we often make the mistake of saying oh, teachers need to go do this or need to go do that, but we don’t provide them with the proper support to go do that,” said Knight, who also serves on the COVID-19 National Outdoor Learning Initiative.
Knight is committed to sharing his knowledge and has presented at numerous conferences including the California Green School Summit, California STEAM Symposium and ACSA’s Superintendents Symposium. He also presented at the World Council on Gifted Education in England as a result of his doctoral dissertation on gifted and talented education, which he completed under Sandra Kaplan at USC in 2006.
A certified naturalist, scuba diver and sailor, Knight was described by one colleague as a Renaissance man who bestows upon students a reverence and compassion for all living things.
“Tony’s capacity to inspire others has its roots in his wonderful optimism and faith in the triumph of the human spirit,” wrote Kathleen J. Schultheis, Ph.D., English teacher at Oak Park High School, in her recommendation. “Over his career, he has taken on many controversial causes and always in defending those who have had no defenders, he has never descended to the level of vitriol of those who set out to challenge his ideas ... He teaches, rather, and in so doing, he has brought about a revolution in many human hearts.”
ACSA’s Ferd. Kiesel Memorial Distinguished Service Award winner Tony Knight.
ACSA’s Ferd. Kiesel Memorial Distinguished Service Award winner Tony Knight.
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