Those of us whose children have disabilities have a deep appreciation for educators who help our children reach their potential -- whether they are special education teachers, regular education teachers, principals or support staff.
Perhaps more than some parents, we marvel at the amount of knowledge, skill and sensitivity they bring to the job of educating all children in a class, activity or school. These educators not only transform students' lives but also serve as role models and resources for parents and colleagues. Indeed, the good they do is contagious.
Although the performance of these individuals is "off the chart" every day, they are rarely recognized in a formal way.
That has changed.
Over the past year, three new awards programs focusing on educators of students with special needs have popped up on the local scene. These recognition programs, along with another that is in its third year, announced their winners in recent weeks.
The Pittsburgh Local Task Force on the Right to Education, which focuses on the education of students with disabilities in the Pittsburgh Public Schools, gave its first Champion Awards on Feb. 24 at the South Side headquarters of Achieva. (As a Pittsburgh Public Schools parent, I'm a member of task force, although not a member of the awards committee.)
The program honored staff and administrators and presented a special award to an educational aide who gave her life in the process of doing her job.
Principals Regina Holley (Lincoln K-8), Sandra Och (Carmalt Pre-K-8), and Robert Scherrer (Allderdice High School) received the J. Kaye Cupples Award. The award is named for a retired special education director who advanced inclusive practices in the district. Dr. Holley and Dr. Och have served in their positions for several years; Mr. Scherrer is new this year to his post.
Danyelle Frye (Martin Luther King Pre-K-8) and Heather Waters (Northview Pre-K-5), both autism support teachers, were honored with the Marilyn McKinney Award for outstanding commitment and service. (See below for the complete list of nominations for the award.)
The "School Program" award went to nominees from the district-wide transition-to-adulthood program. The honorees, who work in a variety of programs and schools, are Cris Bridge (Pioneer K-21), Peg Fitzgerald (Community-Based Vocational Education), Fred Ondrejko (Allderdice High School), Arlene Petite (Conroy K-21) and Susan Wetzel (City Connections).
"They work endlessly to make sure that students have what they need when they leave school," said Ellen Estomin, executive director of Pittsburgh's Program for Students with Exceptionalities.
The "Hero's Award" for outstanding courage was presented to the two adult daughters of paraprofessional Colleen Visconti, who died in a school bus accident last fall. Ms. Visconti was protecting a child from harm when she became injured. She had worked at Pioneer school for 25 years.
"Colleen's life and career were dedicated to the care and nurturing of individuals with special needs," said Sylbia Kunst, principal of Pioneer. "Her infectious laugh could turn dark clouds into sunshine. She is sorely missed, and her life serves as an example to us all."
The Allegheny Local Task Force on the Right to Education, the counterpart to the Pittsburgh group, will present its third annual Scott E. Folmer Memorial Student, Teacher and Exemplary Practice or Partnering Awards this evening at Carlynton Junior/Senior High School, Carnegie. The awards recognize outstanding support of special education students in the 42 school districts in Allegheny County (outside of the city of Pittsburgh).
Receiving first-place honors in the "staff" category is first-grade teacher Amy Wienand from Hosack Elementary School in the North Allegheny School District. Ms. Wienand, a longtime district employee, "is committed to all children in her class and helps them reach their mark," said Debbie Efkeman, chair of the awards committee.
This year's District/Partnering Award goes to a support team that has facilitated the participation of a student with autism in the Hampton High School Band. Those team members are music therapist Maria Carlini of Creative Therapies Enterprises, Amanda Gaus and Maggie Mullen of Pressley Ridge Autism and Developmental Disabilities Program, and Hampton teacher Amy Odorczyk.
"They are an excellent example of coordination and vision," said Ms. Efkeman, who noted that the student participates in band events large and small, including this year's performance in the Disney World parade.
Honorable mentions in these two categories were Deborah Grant, Hance Elementary, Pine- Richland School District (staff award), and Susan Cataldi and the Peer Mentors program (district/partnering award), Fox Chapel Area High School.
The STEPP Awards also honor a student who has had a positive influence on students with special needs. Receiving this year's award is Amy C. Dunn from the South Fayette School District. Ms. Dunn "goes beyond organized programs" to be a friend and supporter of students with special needs, said Ms. Efkeman. "As parents, we appreciate when our children's peers see them for who they are, extend that hand of friendship, and provide a sense of belonging."
In recent years, the state Department of Education has intensified its efforts to ensure the right of students with disabilities to be educated in the "least restrictive environment." In 2005, the state established the Inclusive Practices Project to provide professional development and technical assistance to Pennsylvania schools.
Last year, the project launched an effort to recognize schools and districts that effectively integrate students with disabilities with non-disabled peers.
Winners were announced in February. From 35 nominations, five were chosen, including three in southwestern Pennsylvania -- Pittsburgh Roosevelt Intermediate in Carrick, Mc-Keesport Area High School and the South Side Area School District in Beaver County. (The other awardees are Fairview High School near Erie and Northern Potter Junior/Senior High School in Potter County.)
To be selected, the school or district must be outstanding in one or more of the following areas: leadership, school climate, student placement in extracurricular activities, family involvement, collaborative practices, instructional planning, and use of supplementary aids and services.
Awardees receive $15,000 each to maintain best practices, disseminate information and host site visits during the current school year. Nominations for the next round of awards will be announced later this year.
Another new program recognizes educators of the youngest children with special needs. The Local Interagency Coordinating Council, the county-wide group that oversees early intervention for children birth to 5 with developmental delays, honored teachers in seven early childhood programs on April 22 at Rodef Shalom. Accolades went to the following:
Teacher Diane Hartley, Council of Three Rivers American Indian Center Head Start, Overbrook
Teacher Bernice Ballinger and assistant Donna Harrison, Pittsburgh Public Schools Early Childhood Program, Chartiers
Teacher Candice Barron and assistant Barbara Buchanan-Tucker, Pittsburgh Public Schools Early Childhood Program, Pittsburgh Children's Museum
Teacher Laine Cryder, Harmony Learning Center
Teacher Bethany Lloyd, Children's Center of West View United Methodist Church
Teacher Charzzi White, Tender Care Learning Center, Robinson
Teacher Victoria Hill and assistant Darrell Walker, Cynthia K. Franks Child Care Inc.
Nominations for Marilyn McKinney Award for outstanding service, Pittsburgh Local Task Force on the Right to Education:
Jon Banze, geometry teacher, Allderdice High School
Mark Bergfelt, pre-engineering teacher, Allderdice High School
Jeannette Campesino, Spanish teacher, Minadeo Pre-K-5
Leonard Carter, music teacher, Conroy K-21
Danyelle Frye, autism support teacher, Martin Luther King Pre-K-5 ALA
Tracy Elliott, speech therapist, Minadeo Pre-K-5
Carole Falon, teacher, Pioneer K-21
Thomas Hurt, paraprofessional, Brashear High School
Dan Kliber, English teacher, Allderdice High School
Patrick Kimmel, teacher, Pioneer K-21
Tim Knight, vision therapist, Program for Students with Exceptionalities
Jackie Mathews, personal care assistant, Minadeo Pre-K-5
Vita Nemirovsky, learning support teacher, Minadeo Pre-K-5
Pamela Parks, math teacher, Minadeo Pre-K-5
Ed Powers, life skills support teacher, Arsenal Pre-K-8
Diane Rutten, culinary arts teacher, Carrick High School
Jennifer Salzmann, learning support teacher, Montessori Pre-K-8
Deborah Vallor, physical education teacher (retired), Schenley High School
Heather Waters, autism support teacher, Northview Pre-K-5
Jessica Wright, learning support teacher, Brookline K-8
Tina Calabro writes on disability issues. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .