BRATTLEBORO — Marisa Duncan-Holley says she "fell" into special education when she was 19 years old.
"It has always resonated with me, like this is what I'm supposed to do," said the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union's director of special education who was named the Gail Lynk Special Education Administrator of the Year.
The most rewarding part of her job, she said, is having the opportunity to advocate for children and provide them with support and services they need to be part of their community. "It really helps people not perceive kids with special education as having a disability. They're just part of the community. That's what I want to share with new teachers or kids in college. There's really this great gift you can give to a child and the family and even the schools because everybody benefits from just treating everybody the same. That's easier said than done."
This is Duncan-Holley's ninth year at the WSESU. Superintendent Ron Stahley nominated Duncan-Holley for the award. "As I stated in my nomination letter, she is constantly reviewing programs and services to benefit our students. She works closely with our leadership team — principals and central office administrators. She also works closely with our teaching staff," said Stahley. "She has a strong work ethic, an optimistic outlook and a genuine concern for children. We are fortunate to work with Marisa."
Previously, Duncan-Holly served as executive director at the Winston Prouty Center for Child Development for 12 years. She taught in public schools before Winston Prouty and said she thought it would be interesting to go back into public education. "It's been a really good experience. I feel like we've really done a great job at creating support and services for students with disabilities. Our students are making a lot of progress and graduating. So it's been good."
Duncan-Holley makes transitions easier for kids going from pre-school to kindergarten in a program called Essential Early Education. The statewide program was created to coordinate early childhood special education services for kids.
But Duncan-Holley's job makes her responsible for compliance around all special education services. Students from the age of 3 to 22 are assisted by her team. If a teacher or parent is concerned about a child and think they might have a disability affecting their learning, Duncan-Holley said her team would provide an evaluation to see whether the student is eligible for services.
"If they are, we figure out what they need to really be successful in school and to access their education," she said.
Currently, 450 students in the supervisory union have individualized education plans. Those are for students eligible for special education.
Duncan-Holley's efforts also go into talking with the state to ensure any changes with education align with federal and state regulations. She attributes the WSESU's being "really creative in thinking that all students are being educated in an equitable way" as part of the reason she was honored at the annual Vermont Council of Special Education Administrators conference on May 19.
Although it was Duncan-Holley who received the award, she said, "It really was all of us working together; the principals, central staff.
"It's been a process. It's been years of working at it," she said. "We're actually working very hard as an entire supervisory union to provide what's called multi-tiered systems of support. It's a big long word for really looking at every kid's individual needs and how can a school with their staff and the people that they have support all the kids in the school."
A plan was recently developed to "completely revamp" the way services were provided, Duncan-Holley said. "It's looking at the changing needs of our students as they get into middle and high school, adding support that will help kids when their behavior is getting in the way of accessing their education or if there's emotional issues that are also a barrier. A lot of times we would send those kids to an out-of-district placement. We were trying to figure out a way to create a system so they can stay in school and graduate with their peers."
The biggest challenge for Duncan-Holley is the way financial reimbursements for special education is set up. She said it restricts how special educators and related service providers can support students.
Documentation showing who special education teachers are working with can make planning for instruction difficult or "inflexible" to use Duncan-Holley's word. But she's actively advocating for change in the way this business is handled.
"It takes a lot of creative thinking," she said.
Duncan-Holley, not originally from Brattleboro but Pittsburgh, Penn., lives with her husband. Her daughter has moved back to Pittsburgh. Duncan-Holley called the Brattleboro community a "great, inclusive" one, pointing out that her job constantly puts her in contact with people at agencies and state departments. "That's one of the things I love about the area, this town. There's a genuine care for our kids and our families."
Contact Chris Mays at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 273.