Two people casually dressed posing in a color photo facing the camera
Barbara Holdren joins Principal Rob Gross as they oversee students’ lunch at Mount Vernon Middle School. Credit: Larry Gibbs

MOUNT VERNON – Principal Rob Gross struggles to adequately explain Barbara Holdren’s value to Mount Vernon Middle School.

“I don’t think I could find enough adjectives to describe how great a help she is to our students and staff,” said Gross, a 10-year administrator at the school. 

Holdren is a special needs classroom aide, a role she has filled for more than 31 years in Mount Vernon City Schools, the last 20 or so at the middle school.

She was honored last month by the Knox Educational Service Center (ESC) for her long-time service.

“Not everyone has the skill and patience to help special needs students,” Gross said. “Barb is very polite, very kind and uniquely aware of the needs of students.”

More than three decades ago Holdren was volunteering to help at East Knox Elementary School where her son was a student.

“I had been volunteering for a few years when a friend there said one day, ‘You know, you could be getting paid for this.’

“I said, ‘What!?’” she recalled, laughing.

Holdren, a Mount Vernon High School graduate and lifelong resident of Knox County, subsequently was hired by the ESC to work as a classroom aide. Like all aides, her pay is reimbursed to the ESC by the school district.

“Sure, it’s nice to be paid, but I would do this work anyway. I just love kids,” she said.

For 10 years she worked at the Knox County Career Center and Mount Vernon High School., helping 18- to 21-year-old special-needs students to gain responsibility and learn independent living skills.

“For example, we shopped for groceries and cooked meals in the classroom. We were paid by a local factory to sort bolts,” she said. “The money we earned was used to give students real-life experiences, like staying at a hotel and ordering their own meals.”

At the middle school Holdren is a special education aide, a position she describes as “a second set of eyes” throughout the classroom.

“My focus is on all we can do to help our students,” she said. “I work with the kids in small groups or one-to-one. The job requires a lot of patience and an ability to develop a rapport with the kids. A few may not like me because I believe in rules. Academics are important. If a student writes too large for the space allowed I rewrite what they wrote so that it fits. But it is their work; I won’t do it for them.”

Sometimes a special needs student will become agitated and lash out verbally, even physically. For Holdren, that just comes with the job.

“I try to be fair with everyone. If a student has a problem one day, it doesn’t carry over to the next day. Each day is a clean sheet,” she said.

Over the years Holdren’s annual written evaluations have been peppered with words like “amazing”, “conscientious” and “dependable.”

In 2018 evaluator Patti Dice wrote, “Barb is an amazing asset in my classroom! She sees a need with the students sometimes before the teacher does.”

Two years earlier, Sheralyn Miglin summarized her 17-point evaluation of Holdren by writing, “Past and present teachers are quick to say how dependable, conscientious and positive Mrs. Holdren is to work with. She is a valuable member of the MVMS staff.”

Holdren’s 2008 evaluation said simply, “She is superior in all areas.”

Gross’s present-day description of Holdren echoes those assessments.

“I describe her as like a utility player in baseball. You can put her anywhere and she will get the job done,” he said. “She is so consistent in every way. She seldom misses a day, never wants to be late and usually arrives early.”

All three of Holdren’s adult children – her son and two daughters – graduated at East Knox. She now has eight grandchildren, four girls and four boys.

Retirement isn’t on Holdren’s radar, at least not yet.

“I love the kids, I love the school and I love my work,” she said. “The years have been a blessing.”

Gross hopes her retirement won’t come anytime soon.

“The day Barb leaves will be a sad one here.”

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