Paula D. Knight

Paula D. Knight is beginning her new role as superintendent of the Jennings School District after a 28-year career with St. Louis Public Schools. (Photo by August Jennewein)

As a young girl, Paula D. Knight went to school six days a week. Five of those days, she was the pupil.

Then on Saturdays, she was the teacher, and her stuffed animals and dolls were the students.

“I would get up early, have breakfast, and I wanted to play school,” she said. “I would line up the dolls and the stuffed animals, and I would talk, and they would talk back. My grandfather saw me playing and bought me my first chalkboard. It was utopia when I got that chalkboard for Christmas. I’ve been a teacher ever since.”

Knight went from playing teacher to living her dream as one of the most accomplished educators in St. Louis for nearly three decades. A master’s and doctoral graduate of the University of Missouri–St. Louis College of Education, she begins a new role as the superintendent of the Jennings School District this month.

The Jennings School Board unanimously approved the hiring in February, and Knight will take over for fellow UMSL graduate Art McCoy, who had been the superintendent since 2016.

The move comes after a storied 28-year career with St. Louis Public Schools.

“I grew up professionally in St. Louis Public Schools,” Knight said. “I’m ready to take on this next chapter, this new journey, but it’s bittersweet.”

Knight began her career as a teacher at Hamilton Elementary School in 1994, and she quickly moved up the ladder at SLPS. After Hamilton, she made stops as principal at Waring Academy of Basic Instruction and Washington & Euclid Montessori School before moving to the SLPS Central Office.

Working at the district level, she served in a variety of leadership roles including executive director of K-12 curriculum, associate superintendent of elementary schools and, most recently, chief academic officer and deputy superintendent.

It was exactly where Knight, a former Parkway Schools student, wanted to be after finishing her bachelor’s degree at Saint Louis University. She was confident in her ability to teach in any district.

“I’m a graduate of public education,” Knight said.  “Seeing Black teachers was really important to me, and teaching in the inner city was what I wanted. I did not apply anywhere else. I knew I wanted to work in the inner city.”

Knight fell in love with the environment at SLPS while teaching, but she knew at some point she wanted to become an administrator to effect change beyond her classroom. That meant pursuing an advanced degree.

UMSL came to mind immediately. Not only was she attracted to the university’s reputation for having one of the top education preparation programs in the region, but she also had fond memories of attending classes with her mother, an UMSL graduate.

The master’s program in education challenged Knight, and she recommends it to anyone interested in pushing themselves to become a better educator.

“I continue to tell people who approach me and say, ‘What do you think about these universities?’ and I will always say, ‘If you want something that’s meaningful that you have to work for, you need to go to UMSL,’” she said.

The program helped Knight transition from teaching at Hamilton to serving as an administrator at Waring and Washington & Euclid and eventually with the SLPS Central Office. It took some time to adjust to the change, particularly working with adults instead of children.

The experience taught her the value in humbling yourself to solve problems. To this day, she still seeks the advice of teachers when she needs help working through an issue.

“Teachers will make it happen for you,” Knight said. “Teachers are your strongest advocates when you value their voice. I had to learn that.”

Despite the initial adjustment period, Knight readily took advantage of the opportunities available at the district level. As executive director of K-12 curriculum, Knight helped design, implement and rollout curriculum and professional development for all of SLPS. In her next role as associate superintendent of elementary schools, she oversaw 46 elementary schools and observed the implementation of new curriculum in real time.

Knight’s work led then-Governor Jay Nixon to appoint her to the Missouri Coordinating Board for Early Childhood in 2013. She was tasked with improving the state of early childhood education in SLPS. During her time with the board, she helped increase the number of enrolled 3- and-4-year-olds from about 1,100 to 2,200.

It wasn’t an easy job, but Knight tackled it with zeal.

The first step toward increasing enrollment involved talking to parents with children in daycare centers and home daycares in the city. The goal was to raise awareness about early childhood education and change their expectations for children approaching kindergarten.

“My way to really change that dynamic was to get out in the community and talk about the fact that we have an early childhood program, not preschool,” she said. “There’s a difference, changing the nomenclature. We have early childhood education, kindergarten readiness, where your children will be ready for kindergarten with a certified classroom teacher and a structured day.”

As Knight’s career advanced, she decided to return to UMSL for a doctorate in educational leadership. The degree has been useful as chief academic officer and deputy superintendent at SLPS and has prepared Knight for her next leadership position as superintendent of the Jennings School District.

“What UMSL taught me was to take your time and think,” she said. “I know it doesn’t sound like a lot, but if you take your time and think about what you’re doing, ensuring there’s sustainability and there’s meaning behind your work, that’s important.

“Anything worth having is worth working for. I still use that with people on my team. We have to think. We have to do the research. I can always tell a graduate from a university like UMSL compared to a university that’s not as competitive. When you’re less competitive, that level of research is not there. I can hold a conversation about the research. I can hold a conversation about the data because UMSL made sure of that.”

At Jennings, she intends to ensure students continue to have accessible post-secondary opportunities and to build on her previous work with early childhood education. Some of her long-term goals – universal early childhood education and lowering the compulsory school attendance age – are likely to be uphill battles. However, she believes they’re conversations worth having with Missouri legislators.

Knight has also served the community outside of the classroom as a long-time member of the St. Louis chapters of the Urban League, United Way and the Charmaine Chapman Leadership Society.

For her, the work never stops.

“I learned this early on as part of my childhood with my mom and dad,” she said. “Your work reaches beyond the 9-to-5, and from a spiritual perspective, it’s part of being in the community and truly being a public servant, being a servant to people that we work with and work for. That’s part of why I give back because of the blessings that I have received. I want to be able to give those back to others.”

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