Students and teachers marched down the aisles of the Howard T. Herber Middle School auditorium, singing “I Know I Can,” by Nas. They held signs that read, “I know I can be a doctor,” “I know I can be a lawyer” and “I know I can be a teacher.” This was part of the opening ceremony of the Malverne School District’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. celebration on Jan. 16.
“Look around the room and see the diversity,” said former Malverne High School Principal James Brown. “This was Martin Luther King’s vision.”
Brown, along with high school social worker Joseph Aquino, were honored with the district’s annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Humanitarian Award. An educator for 37 years, Brown, who retired in 2000, was asked to serve as interim principal at Malverne High in 2007. Though he was reluctant at first, Brown took the position, and stayed for five and a half years before retiring again during the 2012-13 school year.
“At the time, morale and confidence was at an all-time low,” the high school’s current principal, Vincent Romano, recalled. “But this changed quickly when the faculty and staff heard that Jim Brown [was] coming to town. The hallways echoed, ‘Jim Brown is coming back.’ It didn’t take me long to discover why people were excited about Jim Brown coming back to Malverne.”
Brown was known for creating a positive environment at the high school, which Romano said led to many of the school’s academic accolades in recent years. District Superintendent Dr. James Hunderfund said that when he met with Brown in 2007, he saw his desire to support children.
“It was his dedication and compassion that made the difference,” Hunderfund said. “Jim stood tall and said, ‘We can do this if we make our minds up to be what we want to be.’ The staff rallied around Jim, and they made it their mission to make Malverne High School better than ever.”
During his acceptance speech, Brown said Romano and Hunderfund gave him too much credit for the high school’s achievements. “I had great people around me, and we all had the same thing in common,” Brown said, “which is to do what’s best for the school and our kids. It’s an honor that I don’t feel like I deserve, but I appreciate everything.”
As a social worker for more than 25 years, Aquino was honored for his daily impact on the students’ lives. Aquino joined the Malverne School District in 1999 as a part-time social worker at Howard T. Herber, and by 2000 was working full-time at the high school. Aquino is responsible for individual and group counseling for more than 120 students each year, crisis intervention, drug and alcohol education as well as organizing guest speakers and presentations on substance abuse and mental health awareness.
“I can confidently say that after 20 years, Mr. Aquino’s energy and passion for supporting the students is unwavering,” said Meredyth Martini, the district’s special education director. “He found a way to demystify counseling and mental health issues, which has enabled our students to seek out support and not suffer in silence. He will give you his undivided attention, no judgment, and you will walk out of his presence with a sense of purpose and confidence to conquer whatever life gives you.”
Martini added that because of his warm, comforting approach to helping children, some of his former students have become social workers.
“At a time when the mental health crisis for America’s youth is at epidemic proportions, it’s people like Joe Aquino who are not just a nice compliment to schools, but an absolute necessity,” Romano said. “The world would be a better place if we had more Joe Aquinos.”
Aquino said that while he has enjoyed being a part of several success stories with his students, none of that could be accomplished without the support of his family, friends and staff members. “They give me strength each day and they make me a better person,” Aquino said. “The meaningful relationships that our staff established with students empower me to be more effective every day.”
Aquino also said that as a young social worker, Brown instilled confidence in him during times when he did not believe in himself. Through Brown, he learned to value input from everybody he works with.
“Not everybody can be famous, but everybody can be great because greatness is determined by service,” he said, quoting MLK. “You only need a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love.”