As children go through school many of their parents become involved too, attending PTA meetings; volunteering as a class parent; chaperoning field trips or helping out at the booster club bake sale.
While volunteering at school becomes a rite of passage for parents, most end their participation at their children’s school level rather than take on a larger role of serving their district.
Helen Kirsch, the 2015 School Board Member of the Year, is a notable exception.
Kirsch began her school volunteer career in the Berkeley Heights PTA when her children were small, and was serving as president of her school’s parent group when she learned the school was due to close because of declining enrollment. Kirsch began attending board meetings, where she discovered that a music program was about to be eliminated, too.
“It sounds silly, but I thought ‘Wow – if they can get rid of a music program and I didn’t know about it, what else can they get rid of?” she recalled.
More than three decades ago, Kirsch made the leap from PTA mom to school board candidate. Some 32 years later she is still serving on the Berkeley Heights Board of Education where she has been president more than 15 times. She has also served for 18 years on the Union County Education Services Commission board, an appointed board with representatives from throughout Union County, that focuses on special education, alternative education, and education in the juvenile detention center.
In her years on the Berkeley Heights board, Kirsch has adopted dozens of budgets, made countless decisions on curriculum, and attended an estimated 550 school board meetings. She was integral in the creation of Berkeley Heights early childhood center, one of the state’s first, which opened in the former elementary school that her own children once attended.
In perhaps her most landmark accomplishment, Kirsch led the effort to dissolve the Union County Regional High School District, which was suffering from escalating costs in the early 1980s. As a result, Berkeley Heights changed from a K-8 school district to a K-12 with its own high school, Governor Livingston.
Her work has won praise from her local board colleagues, who say her service and leadership are crucial to the success of the school district. “The commitment Helen brings….is evidenced by her continued efforts in improving the lives of our students,” said Berkeley Heights School Superintendent Dr. Judith Rattner.
Kirsch is also an active mentor to other school board members throughout Union County and the state. She earned Master Board Member Certification, is on the board of directors of the New Jersey School Boards Association and has been president of the Union County School Boards Association. Added to that, she serves as board liaison to many community and town committees in Berkeley Heights, and is well-known in the community as a tireless volunteer.
“Helen exemplifies the best that a school board member can be,” said NJSBA Executive Director Dr. Lawrence Feinsod. “The Board Member of the Year designation is a perfect fit. We commend her work and thank her for years of dedicated service to children.”
Kirsch was presented the School Board Member of the Year award in a ceremony on the main stage at NJSBA Workshop 2015, in October. Modest and unassuming, Kirsch called the honor and ceremonial presentation “kind of overwhelming.”
“Being honored for something that I love to do…I can’t find a word to describe it. It was just overwhelming. It was humbling. It was all of those things,” she said. “It’s quite an honor to be recognized by your peers.”
Despite the accolades and recognition, Kirsch said her favorite part of the job is that which drew her to school volunteer work in the first place: Being involved, going to graduations and events, watching children grow and learn as they move through the public school system. She now has grandchildren attending the Berkeley Heights schools, and said she hears about the day-to-day goings-on in the schools every day when the children come bustling in.
“Just seeing the accomplishment on the faces of kids, and the smiles on their faces when they go through school and graduate, or come to board meetings, is wonderful,” she said. “It’s so much fun seeing them come home happy. Being able to be part of giving them the opportunity to succeed is rewarding.”