Monique Darrisaw-Akil leads the way towards a brighter future

The Uniondale Superintendent is named inaugural 'Person of the Year'

Posted December 28, 2023
Monique Darrisaw-Akil
Monique Darrisaw-Akil

By Brandon Cruz

Residents throughout Uniondale will tell you — this community, once grappling with educational challenges that seemed insurmountable, has undergone a remarkable transformation under the leadership of the Herald Beacon’s inaugural Person of the Year, Monique Darrisaw-Akil, the superintendent of the Uniondale School District.

The district’s successful turnaround under Darrisaw-Akil’s leadership goes far beyond the positive statistics that track student improvement. Since her tenure began in the summer of 2022, the Darrisaw-Akil name has become synonymous with revitalization, progress, and a renewed sense of hope across the community.

“She has really turned the Uniondale school district around,” Pearl Jacobs, a community leader and the president of the Nostrand Gardens Civic Association, said. “Uniondale is an example of how a district can be turned around and succeed in minority communities with the right attention, investments and resources available to students.”

Jacobs attributes this success to Darrisaw-Akil’s plans for the district and her determination to see her students succeed. “She pours confidence into the children, letting them know that they can succeed the same as any other student in Nassau County,” Jacobs said. “She has opened a lot of doors that were previously closed for many of our students.”

Before Darrisaw-Akil took over, Uniondale faced a myriad challenges, from lagging graduation rates and below-average proficiency scores to outdated infrastructure. She has orchestrated a massive cultural and educational shift, adding additional student resources and revamping students’ learning process across the district.

Through Darrisaw-Akil’s “strategic plan” to increase student achievement, and with it students’ access to more rigorous academic opportunities, Uniondale has raised its graduation rate from just 79 percent in 2020 to 87 percent this year. College admission numbers have also soared, with the doors to higher education opening for hundreds of students who may not have dreamed of going beyond high school. Not only are 84 percent of June’s graduates attending college — a dramatic increase from just 67 percent in 2021 — but 44 percent are doing so at four-year universities, which is the highest percentage in years, according to state and district data.

“One of the first things we did when I got here was revamp our college and career room,” Darrisaw-Akil explained, “and staffed it with qualified, experienced and passionate counselors who have been very beneficial to many of our first-gen students in navigating the really intimidating process of applying to college. It’s really about the entire experience,” she added. “Having someone who knows the students, believes in them, supports them and lets them know that no question is a silly one, and in just a short time, we’ve seen that the types of colleges our kids are going to has changed.”

Besides boosting the graduation and college attendance rates, Darrisaw-Akil has made it a priority to build up the district’s long underutilized Advanced Placement program, which has now become a cornerstone of Uniondale’s academic excellence. The district offers 21 AP courses, which have attracted a surge of student interest, with over 520 students now enrolled in them, almost doubling the enrollment since 2021.

“This is really important,” Darrisaw-Akil said, “because the data across New York state shows that students of color have less access to AP courses in comparison to other students, and we know that Advanced Placement achievement is one of the gateways to getting into more elite colleges.”

The superintendent has also overseen the expansion of the district science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, program, emphasizing the involvement of younger students in hands-on scientific learning experiences.

“When I think about where the jobs are in the future, and when I think about how automation is going to impact the workforce, we want to make sure that our students aren’t left behind, but we also want to make sure they’re leading the way,” Darrisaw-Akil said. “It’s a really important equity issue that more Black and Latino students see themselves as leaders in technology, science and engineering, since we know that we’re underrepresented in those areas, and so we have to break down those barriers.”

And the district’s turnaround doesn’t end there. Uniondale has also worked to reduce the number of students who are chronically absent; implemented free after-school child care for elementary students, to help working parents; added summer programs to give students the chance to continue expanding their education; and offers them opportunities to learn skills like entrepreneurship, gardening and cooking. Darrisaw-Akil has also focused on improving the district’s aging infrastructure throughout the district, which led to widespread construction this summer.

“She’s a visionary,” Uniondale High School Principal Mark McCaw said. “She came into the district and carved out a path for us to be successful. She cares about the kids, and makes sure that everybody has an opportunity to learn and be successful, no matter who you are.”

Other changes that Darrisaw-Akil has helped bring to the district include social initiatives — backpack drives to make sure every student starts the school year properly equipped; collaborating with community leaders to help keep students on the right track when they’re not in school; creating a district wide app for streamlined communication with parents; and others aimed at keeping students engaged in school and out of trouble.

Born and raised in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, Darrisaw-Akil — who earned a doctorate in education from Seton Hall — knew from an early age she wanted to be involved into education, and help students who look like her access the resources and opportunities she knew would make a difference in their lives during and after their school years.

“It goes back to being a student and being aware of the disparities between our schools and how they looked, and the activities, programs and services they had to offer, versus what other schools in other neighborhoods had to offer,” Darrisaw-Akil said. “I would often ask, ‘Why are there so many inequalities in our education system, when all of us should have the same equal experience and access to resources?’”

She went on to say that her goal when she was growing up was to work in communities like Uniondale, where there are opportunities for growth, and she would be able to work to close those gaps. “For me, it’s about addressing inequities and disparities in education,” she said. “I think schools have to be the place where America fulfills its promise.”

Although she said she was happy with the progress the district has made, she made it clear that her work is far from done. “We’re going to be doubling down on our students, because we know our kids are smart, they’re resilient and they’re talented,” Darrisaw-Akil said. “We want them to learn how to struggle — with a lot of support — and we want to remove barriers so that all kids can have those kinds of opportunities.”