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Known as "Mrs. K" to the kids at Polson Middle School, Maryann Kunst has worked in the Madison School System for 25 years-but this is the first year she's received official recognition for her hard work. The Board of Education recently named Maryann the Madison Public Schools 2013 Paraprofessional of the Year. It's the first year of the award in not just Madison, but the state.
Working alongside Dawn Fiorelli in Polson's library, Maryann's helped create an increasingly digitized and friendlier environment. Fines on overdue books are a thing of the past, and they've broken down the security system at the entrance to create a more welcoming environment.
"This year is extra-exciting," notes Maryann, who thrives on change. "Very soon we're going to have wireless connectivity throughout the building, so students will be able to bring their own digital devices. Libraries are going to be different animals than they have been in the past."
Maryann was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan, not far from the 8 Mile Road of Eminem fame. She and her husband Jack, an FBI agent, moved to Madison when he was transferred to New Haven from Manhattan, where they had lived for 14 years.
Maryann started out working in the school system as a job coach at $4.21 an hour for five mentally retarded high school students. After those students graduated, she continued in the school system as a paraprofessional with special education students at Jeffrey School. In a 3rd-grade classroom called the "Challenger Lab," Maryann mastered Apple IIe computers and found new ways to involve technology, using it as a link between her special education students and the other kids in the school.
"They used to call us the little geek squad; we could always fix the printer," she says. "Somehow that was a good bridge."
Maryann continued studying technology, and eventually became a technology paraprofessional at Jeffrey School in its burgeoning computer lab. There, she trained both students and staff, creating "Blue Plate Specials," or technology lessons on Word, Excel, and other programs for the teachers.
"I loved working in that little lab," she says. "The teachers were still kind of shaky on technology. It was a different era."
Maryann also enjoyed the kids' enthusiasm for technology and the fun of discovering new-at-the-time websites such as MapQuest.
"The kids just naturally loved it," says Maryann, whose own daughter, Kelly Giuliano, is a Madison attorney. "You're drawn by their energy."
After Maryann's husband retired, he suggested that she do the same. However, she didn't want to give up working in the school system. She went the opposite route, landing a full-time, year-round position of network support specialist in Central Office.
"It was probably the biggest challenge of my life, to go ahead and market myself and to be able to say I could do this job," she recalls. "I really wanted it because I wanted the challenge of it."
As network support specialist, Maryann kept the computers running smoothly in all the schools and town buildings, too.
Later, a paraprofessional position became available at Polson's library at a time when she was looking to reduce her hours. Maryann was nervous at first about working with middle schoolers, but soon realized she loved it.
"Middle school kids get such a bad reputation for no reason," she says, noting that a sense of humor is key. "I love it; the kids are wonderful- there's just a mutual respect."
Her own success, she says, stems from her love of the work and the kids.
"If I've been successful, it's because I've been happy," says Maryann, who looks forward to seeing her grandchildren attend Jeffrey School one day. "I've been free to initiate, to create. I've always felt really well supported and appreciated. It's really an excellent school system and I'm really happy to be a part of it.
She adds that all paraprofessionals work hard, typically for little pay, and that she can't wait to see who wins next year's award.