As long as Adam Parkinson can remember, he’s wanted to get into education, so it seemed only natural at age 18 – just months after graduating from a West New York high school – to seek an open seat on the district’s  board of education.

It was 2014, and the board was gearing up to transition from a seven-member Type 1 board appointed by the mayor to a nine-member Type 2 board elected by voters. In the interim, however, it needed to appoint a new member for what it expected to be a four-month term, as its president, Adrienne Sires, had decided to leave before her term ended. (Sires is the wife of Albio B. Sires, a Cuban-born American businessman who has served in the U.S. House of Representatives since 2006, and who recently announced this will be his last term in Congress.) More than 10 residents applied to serve. 

“I was incredibly nervous as an 18-year-old, speaking in front of all these people in an auditorium,” said Parkinson, whose great-grandparents immigrated to the United States in 1967 from Pinar del Rio in Cuba.

Parkinson’s family had recently seen him graduate as valedictorian from Memorial High School. At the time he decided to seek a seat on the board, he was a freshman majoring in elementary education and American studies at Saint Peter’s University in Jersey City.

Vilma Reyes, who was chosen to serve as the board’s president with Sires’s departure, saw something in Parkinson and nominated him for the position over the other candidates. When she asked if there were any other nominations, the rest of the board stayed quiet. Incidentally, the four-month term Parkinson was expecting to fill ended up being almost a year, as the board moved from holding its election in April to November.

“While I united the board for that one specific vote, it was still a very divided school board at that time,” he recalled. “I wanted to try to find that middle ground. I always say that one school board member can’t do anything – if you want to be on a school board, you need to be able to work with people and get along with people. You can have your own opinions and own voice, but at the same time, you want to make sure you are working as a team.”

That kind of attitude helped Parkinson win a full term in the election months later, and it has kept him on the board ever since. At age 20, he was elected board president – the youngest person of record in state history to have achieved this distinction. Since October 2019, he has also served as president of the Hudson County School Boards Association.

“The thing I have learned most from the county leadership position is just how everyone fixes and resolves issues in their specific area,” Parkinson said. “Having that collaboration between school board members throughout our county has been very helpful.”

He also had words of praise for Adrienne Sires, who unknowingly launched his school board journey when she stepped down as president all those years ago. “She was a phenomenal school board president,” Parkinson said. “Talk about someone who is an exceptional person. She is someone who was a former assistant superintendent in our school district. Someone who was a former supervisor and a former teacher. She was an incredibly competent school board president.” 

Fortunately, a few years later Sires ran for re-election and rejoined the board when Parkinson was president, he said. “I learned so much from her as a fellow colleague,” he said.

In October, the New Jersey School Boards Association announced Parkinson, who works full-time as an administrator and teacher at Weehawken School District, as its 2022-2023 School Board Member of the Year – an award that honors a local board of education member who makes significant contributions to public education, exemplifies leadership in the field of education with a strong commitment to the children of New Jersey, demonstrates a strong commitment to their own personal and professional development as a board member and shows active involvement in school governance at the local, county and state levels. At age 27, he is the youngest person to ever win the award.

NJSBA’s Irene LeFebvre, president; and Dr. Timothy Purnell, executive director, surprised Parkinson with the award during the West New York Board of Education’s meeting on Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2022.

“Since the age of 18, Adam Parkinson has been a tireless supporter of public education in his community,” said LeFebvre, who was NJSBA’s 2020-2021 School Board Member of the Year. “His district has thrived under his leadership, he has advocated for students at the county and state level, and he has been dedicated to his own professional development as a board member.”

Purnell added, “Adam brings an impressive level of focus, energy and insight into his work as a board of education member, and the students in his community are lucky indeed to have such a thoughtful advocate working for them.  On behalf of NJSBA’s members, I wish him warm congratulations on this well-deserved honor.”

Dedicated to Service Parkinson said he was “incredibly honored and humbled” to be recognized as NJSBA’s 2022-2023 School Board Member of the Year.

“When President LeFebvre and Dr. Purnell visited West New York for our October school board meeting to announce this, I was truly speechless,” he said. 

He added that he’s never taken serving his community at the local level for granted. “When I first became a school board member at 18 years old, NJSBA immediately helped me learn what it takes to be effective in this role,” he said. “I couldn’t be more appreciative of them for all their guidance and support, not only for school board members across New Jersey, but as a voice for the students of our state.”

Parkinson also gave lots of credit to Clara Brito Herrera, superintendent of West New York School District. “She is phenomenal,” he said. “She was a teacher in our school district, a parent in our school district, a principal and an assistant superintendent – and she is the first Latina to serve as our superintendent of schools.”

Parkinson was nominated by Jonathan Castaneda, a fellow trustee on the West New York Board of Education and a member of NJSBA’s board of directors, who wrote, “Our board trusts his decision-making skills because we know that Mr. Parkinson truly embodies everything that a dedicated school board leader should be. He is deeply committed to the students of our district, and I have personally seen the transformation of our schools during his tenure.”

Asked why he initially sought a seat on the board at such a young age, Parkinson said he’s always believed in getting involved, noting that he was his class president and a member of the National Honor Society.

He recalled a time when fellow students came to him complaining about how there were too many schedule conflicts between AP and honors courses. 

“As a student, I said we have to do something about it,” he shared. “So, we wrote up a petition and we got students to sign it.  We had hundreds of signatures requesting this be changed.”

The petition was sent to the central office “just to let them know that the students were dissatisfied over this, and we wanted to see some kind of change,” Parkinson said. “We had tried going through the administration and a couple different avenues and we just wanted to express ourselves – not in a combative way – but just to make sure this was communicated.”

As a result of the students’ efforts, the school  changed the schedule. “It was a moment that we, as students, felt that we made a major change by letting our voices be heard,” he said.

That experience left Parkinson with an appreciation for advocacy – and a belief that when he worked hard to build consensus, a lot could be accomplished.

Into the Political Arena A new arrival to West New York could be forgiven for thinking that Parkinson must be a newcomer to public service. In reality, he’s an almost 10-year veteran who helped lead the district through the roller coaster of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It hasn’t been an easy ride either – when he won that first general election in 2014, he was one of 16 candidates seeking four seats.

“You need to buy a lot of sneakers – that was one of the first things I learned,” he said. “I’d never had to knock on doors.” 

But doing that has helped mold him into the school board member he is, he said. “You need that pulse of the community. You need to know what the members of your community are interested in.”

It’s a big help, he said, that he’s from the community, which is predominantly Hispanic. “If I wanted to eat when I was growing up, I needed to say it in Spanish because my great-grandparents didn’t speak English,” he said. When he sought a seat on the board, he felt it was missing someone who could relate to students.

“I looked at the board at that time, and there were a lot of people who were parents on the board, community members and educators – but no one who had graduated from the school system,” he said. “I’m a big believer that if you are serving students, you need someone who has sat in that exact same seat.”

Some board members and members of the community thought he was too young. “But at the end of the day, you are elected to serve kids – those are your clients,” he said. “If you’re too young as an 18-year-old having just gone through that school system, what are you saying about our kids?” he asked. “Those are the people we are representing. So, I never took comments of ‘you’re too young to do this’ seriously. Those type of comments only fueled my passion to keep going.”

His youth was a net positive, he thinks.

“One of the things I definitely benefited from was I just graduated from high school,” he said. “A lot of the voters who came out were also very young and were people my age. There is a lot of rhetoric that comes out during election time that young people don’t go out to vote, and a lot of times that is true … but when young people see someone who really relates to them on the ballot, they will come out and vote.”

To this day, he’s tremendously thankful to his former classmates who voted for him, as well as their siblings, their parents and their grandparents. 

The Art of Boardsmanship As a board member, you have to know what not to get involved with, he said. “There are so many different matters that arrive at a board of education that are not necessarily school board matters,” he said.

One of the biggest challenges Parkinson has faced as a board member is navigating the COVID-19 pandemic, he said. 

“I was excited about all the things we were doing in the school district, but then the pandemic hit, and you realize that the many years of experience you had on the school board meant nothing because everyone had to relearn education all over again,” he said. “It was a tremendous challenge to navigate the pandemic.”

He had to cope with the same difficult terrain as an educator, noting that parents really stepped up and became those in-house teachers that their children needed. “We were on our computers and supplying students with instructions and trying to tell them as much as we could, but parents played a tremendous role,” he said.

When he’s not focusing on his board service, Parkinson helps students in neighboring Weehawken, where he’s served as the PreK-12 coordinator of academic programs and student achievement since July 2021.

After completing an internship, Parkinson was hired to work in the district full time starting in January 2017, starting out as a fourth-grade teacher at Theodore Roosevelt Elementary School. There, he taught language arts, mathematics, social studies and science before moving over to Weehawken High School, where he’s taught mathematics to seventh- and eighth-grade students.

Even though he now has his hands full as an administrator, he still teaches students, which he calls “the favorite part of my day.”

Amid all this, he has earned a Master of Professional Studies in political management from George Washington University and a Master of Arts in Administration and leadership from Georgian Court University. Next, he plans to seek a doctorate degree in educational leadership.

As a school board member, Parkinson is incredibly happy that West New York did not have to place any staff on furlough during the pandemic. 

The pandemic, however, took its toll – especially on the mental health of students and staff, Parkinson said. In Weehawken, the school board president, Richard Barsa Sr., who also served as the town’s finance director, died as a result of the pandemic at age 65 after decades of board service, he said. 

At times, it was challenging to determine how to proceed as a district, Parkinson said.

“There is no better place to learn than the classroom,” he said. “Having said that, you have a responsibility for making sure students and staff are safe at schools.” Balancing those two ideas was “definitely a challenge,” he said.

Fortunately, as a result of his participation in the Hudson County School Boards Association, Parkinson discovered that often, neighboring municipalities could help each other weather the pandemic’s hard times. 

For instance, the Weehawken board helped West New York acquire COVID-19 testing kits for students. Likewise, when Weehawken and North Bergen needed to find a place for students to swim, well, West New York has a swimming pool. “We were able to help them out,” Parkinson said.

“I think that everyone was strong in West New York,” Parkinson said. “We had a lot of loss in our community, but we always made sure we acted in a way that was responsible, and I could not be prouder of what we were able to do.”

As the pandemic has eased, the district has sought to fight learning loss, which “is a real thing,” Parkinson said. It has hired reading developers to combat illiteracy, continued programs into the summer, sought to help students with emotional struggles and engaged in other efforts, he said.

In addition to navigating the pandemic, Parkinson cited the district achieving certification by the commissioner of education as a “High Performing District,” receiving an award for Energy Stewardship and being designated as a Future Ready School, from early childhood to high school, as primary accomplishments. He also highlighted the district’s new freshman academy and new football and track fields, which were both wishes he remembers talking about in his days as a student in the district. Now, they are a reality.

Parkinson is also excited about a new PreK -through-Grade 5 school that could accommodate 500 students, which will be built with Schools Development Authority Funds, the SDA announced in a September news release.

Asked about his biggest frustration as a board member, Parkinson said it can be frustrating when you think you have a great idea but can’t convince the majority of the board. “You have to be able to compromise as a school board member,” he said. “You might feel very strongly about something, and it goes back to you need other school board members to be on the same page as you to get work done.”

Fortunately, West New York has a close-knit school board, he said. “It excites me how our school board has transformed over the years,” he said. “We really are a very issues-based, goal-oriented type of board.”

Asked if he’d like to seek a higher political office or a larger role in education, Parkinson said, “I consider myself to be a very ambitious person. I don’t think at 27 I would be a school board president if I didn’t have an ambitious desire to always do more for my school district. Any way that we can positively impact students in any capacity, sign me up for that.”

He added that he’s proud to hail from West New York, having grown up in the center of town at 54th Street, right off Bergenline Avenue. “To imagine that I am in the position I am in at 27 years old – this is literally our American Dream,” he said. “This is our resilience as a community. It is that Tiger spirit we all have.”

Left to right: Dr. Karen Cortellino, vice president for legislation/resolutions at NJSBA; Michael McClure, NJSBA’s immediate past president; Adam Parkinson, president of the West New York Board of Education; Bruce Young, NJSBA’s vice president for county activities; Tammeisha Smith, NJSBA’s vice president for finance; and Dr. Timothy Purnell, NJSBA’s executive director at Workshop 2022 in Atlantic City.
Left to right: Dr. Karen Cortellino, vice president for legislation/resolutions at NJSBA; Michael McClure, NJSBA’s immediate past president; Adam Parkinson, president of the West New York Board of Education; Bruce Young, NJSBA’s vice president for county activities; Tammeisha Smith, NJSBA’s vice president for finance; and Dr. Timothy Purnell, NJSBA’s executive director at Workshop 2022 in Atlantic City.


Thomas A. Parmalee is NJSBA’s managing editor.