See more of the story

KimEl' Henry never planned on spending her career in education. She'd dreamed of attending culinary school and opening her own restaurant to pursue her love of cooking. But after more than two decades of working in Minneapolis Public Schools, she says she's grateful she followed her aunt's advice to apply for a job in the district.

"It's been a long time and I'm so thankful," said Henry, the restorative practices and dean team lead at Andersen United Middle School in Minneapolis. "I have so much passion for these kids."

Henry's dedication was recognized this week: Education Minnesota, the state's teachers union, named her the 2022-2023 Educational Support Professional (ESP) of the Year.

"I'm so super excited and humbled by the award," Henry said, adding that she's been overwhelmed by the flood of congratulatory messages from colleagues and students, even some from many years ago.

In her role, Henry facilitates restorative circles and mediation with students and staff and prioritizes building relationships with students and their families. She helps with the middle school's support teams, which bring together school staff to identify and meet students' behavioral, academic and mental needs.

After two decades in education, Henry said she's recently started to see more recognition for the integral role support professionals play in schools. She said she wants to use her new title to continue advocating for the recruitment and retention of ESPs of color and push for better pay for ESPs.

"We are there building relationships with students and families and advocating for the whole child," she said. "Just because we don't have the same education or certificate [as teachers] doesn't mean we don't know the job."

Education Minnesota President Denise Specht said Henry embodies the important work of educational support professionals.

"ESPs are the staff who make school happen and that is what KimEl' proves every day," Specht said. "KimEl's commitment to her students and her colleagues in creating a behavior management program at all levels of her school means that the space is a more welcoming, mindful and supportive learning and working environment for everyone."

As the Minnesota ESP of the Year, Henry will receive an iPad and a $1,200 honorarium. She will also be nominated for the National Education Association's ESP of the Year and will receive an all-expenses paid trip to the awards ceremony.