TRENTON – A Berkeley Heights school board member who led her district’s growth and evolution from a K-8 school district to a thriving K-12 district, and also served as mentor to countless other local board members, Helen E. Kirsch has been chosen as the 2015 New Jersey School Board Member of the Year.
A 32-year member of the Berkeley Heights board, Kirsch served concurrently on the Union County Educational Services Commission board for 18 years. She was praised for her service, leadership and contribution to education in Berkeley Heights and the community at large.
“Helen’s service and leadership have been crucial to the success of the school district,” wrote Berkeley Heights board vice-president Gerry Crisonino, in his nominating letter.
“Helen exemplifies the best that a school board member can be,” said Dr. Lawrence S. Feinsod, executive director of the New Jersey School Boards Association (NJSBA). “We commend her work, and thank her for years of dedicated service to children.”
The School Board Member of the Year award honors an individual board member who makes significant contributions; exemplifies leadership in the field of education with a strong commitment to the children of New Jersey; demonstrates a strong commitment to his or her personal and professional development as a board member; and shows active involvement in school board governance at the local, county and state levels.
NJSBA President Donald Webster noted that Kirsch has mentored board members throughout Union County and beyond. “Her expertise in education is unparalleled, and we are grateful for her leadership and willingness to share her knowledge,” he said.
When Kirsch first took office in 1983, Berkeley Heights was a mid-sized K-8 district whose high school students attended the Union County Regional High School District. One of the district’s four high schools, Governor Livingston, was located in Berkeley Heights. At that time, the regional district’s per-pupil costs were escalating, and an effort began to study deregionalization.
With Kirsch and colleagues leading the way, they studied the pros and cons of deregionalizing, reached out to other towns, and successfully advocated for legislation that facilitated the deregionalization process. A referendum was held in the six district communities, and the vote passed. The four towns with high schools within their borders, including Berkeley Heights, became K-12 districts, with the remaining two towns entering sending-receiving relationships. The high school programs are now more effective and the costs are lower, according to the nominating materials.
For her part, Kirsch, who now has grandchildren attending the Berkeley Heights schools, said she has found the work “very satisfying.”
“Just seeing the accomplishment on the faces of kids, and their smiles when they go through school and graduate or when they come to board meetings, is very rewarding,” she said. “Being able to be part of giving them the opportunities to succeed is rewarding.”
In addition to the transformation of the district into a K-12 system, she is most proud of the fact that Berkeley Heights was one of the first districts in the state to start an early childhood center.
Kirsch served as board member of the county Educational Services Commission for 18 years, including five years as board president; earned Master Board Member Certification; serves on the Board of Directors of NJSBA; and has also been president of the Union County School Boards Association.
Estimates are that Kirsch has attended more than 550 Berkeley Heights board meetings alone, said district superintendent Judith Rattner. A familiar figure in Berkeley Heights, often serving as board liaison to various community and town committees, Kirsch is a tireless volunteer who frequently goes directly from one board meeting or event to another.
“The commitment Helen brings…is evidenced by her continued efforts in improving the lives of our students,” Rattner wrote.
Nominations for the award were judged by an independent panel from the Pennsylvania School Boards Association. The award will be formally presented later this month during the NJSBA’s annual conference.
The New Jersey School Boards Association is a federation of the state’s local boards of education and includes the majority of New Jersey’s charter schools as associate members.
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