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BC News

July 25, 2011

picture of kathy johnston 

Kathy Johnston

picture of Kyle O'Brien 

Kyle O'Brien 

picture of Dena Sanders 

Dena Sanders

New faces and a new name for Special Education Department

Experienced educators join Special Education and Student Support Services

What does Pupil Personnel Services mean anyway?

That has been a familiar question over the years, as even those who knew the department’s name wondered about why it would be called that.

So, with former director Rita Levay retiring at the end of the last year, the district saw this time of transition as an opportunity to rename the department to more accurately capture the wide array of services and programs it provides: Special Education and Student Support Services.

“We are here to help students achieve to the best of their abilities,” new department Director Kathleen Johnston said. “The bottom line is, we are here to do everything we can to support students. This simple name change says that.”

The department includes the entire special education program, speech, nursing, occupational and physical therapy, and social and emotional services. The programs and services benefit not just the approximately 900 students who are officially identified as special education students, but the entire general student population through the work of school nurses, psychologists, social workers and other service providers.

New CSE Chairs

The department also has some new faces in leadership positions to match its new name. At its July 6 meeting, the Board of Education approved the appointments of Kyle O’Brien and Dena Sanders to the two open Committee on Special Education (CSE) chair positions.

One of the positions was vacated when Johnston was named the department’s director this spring. The second opening was the result of a decision during the most recent budget process to restore CSE chair staffing to previous levels after reductions in recent years. This was done to ensure department leaders have sufficient time to meet with families, oversee program quality and planning; and to supervise special education staff.

Committee on Special Education is the name for the group of people that come together for each individual child in the special education department to make decisions about the student’s educational program. It typically includes parents, teachers, and service providers (such as speech, physical therapy, etc.) along with the CSE chair.

O’Brien and Sanders both said they were looking forward to being part of a special education team in Bethlehem with a record for excellence and expertise in the field. They both were most recently directors of special education in smaller districts.

“I was drawn to Bethlehem by its reputation — it’s a very progressive district,” said Dena Sanders, who was most recently director of special education for the Waterford-Halfmoon Union-Free School District in Saratoga County. “The challenge is to stay progressive. Special education is always changing, and we should always be looking for new ideas and ways to do things better.”

Sanders will be the committee on special education chairperson for the High School, Elsmere, and private school students. She said she wants to focus on establishing strong parental involvement at the secondary level, a challenge is mirrored in the general education program.

O’Brien, who was most recently director of special education for the Hoosic Valley Central School District, will be BC’s committee on special education chair for Eagle, Hamagrael, and Slingerlands students.

O’Brien said he was also excited about joining a district that has been at the forefront of changes in special education in recent years, citing the integration of students into general education classes and into the overall life and activities of a school community.

“This is a great opportunity for me professionally,” O’Brien said. “What we thought of as special education 20 years ago has really evolved. I’m looking forward to being part of this team and making even more progress to help all kids meet success.”

Looking ahead

Indeed, he and Sanders are coming to Bethlehem after a period of intensive program development in special education. The district has established several special classes throughout the K-12 program as part of an effort to most effectively meet students’ needs in the district rather than sending them to costly outside programs.

The district is a state leader in graduation rates for students with disabilities and for its declassification rate — or the rate at which students are transitioned back to the general education program and require little to no department support or services.

Johnston said that while the program development has clearly been successful, she is focused on the next set of challenges. These include ensuring more continuity between the special classes at different academic levels, and operating in a fiscally responsible manner.

“All of this will require looking at the department with fresh eyes, which we are doing, and looking outside for the best, research-based practices,” she said.

Johnston began with the district 14 years ago as a speech teacher. When she was named to the director position this spring, Superintendent Michael Tebbano said that her track record of bringing people together to meet challenges made her the right fit for the department at this time.

“My most immediate priorities,” Johnston said, “are to communicate positively and constructively as a department with our families and the general education team at BC, to make sure we are open to new ideas, and continue to put students first always.”









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