Teaching English Learner Students with Disabilities

Erica Sommer

Erica Sommer is a special education teacher in Del Valle Independent School District, which serves students in and around Austin, Texas.

Sommer works closely with the district’s substantial English learner population, has almost 15 years of teaching experience and has been passionate about teaching for as long as she remembers. She shared with us how working with English learner students and those with disabilities has impacted her as a teacher and individual.


English learners make up one of the most diverse student groups in schools today. When English learners enter our schools, they come from varying racial, ethnic, linguistic, socio-economic, educational, and cultural backgrounds. Serving the needs of English learner students, particularly those identified as having a disability, can be a challenge for schools and teachers, but it is also an interesting and exciting group of students to teach and learn from.

I have had many unique opportunities to work with English learners who are also students with disabilities both at the very beginning of my career in Kansas City, Kansas and now, as I work with students in and around Austin, Texas.

In Kansas City, I worked with English learner students with disabilities who were part of a public-private school partnership in the district.

In my current school district, bilingual students make up about 87 percent of the student population, and about 60 percent of those students are English learners. I really enjoy this work, especially the relationships I’m able to build with individual students and their families.

Over the past two years, I’ve been working with a young English learner with learning disabilities including dyslexia. She has been such an inspiration to me. She is the hardest working student I’ve ever worked with, and I can’t wait to get invited to her high school graduation!

Teaching English learners with disabilities is of course challenging at times, but those challenges become learning experiences. I have found several strategies that work well when facing challenges in my work.

  1. I learned to ask for help when communicating with parents. This sometimes requires getting a translator, and these situations have helped me to develop another skill, which is to learn how to communicate effectively while using a translator.
  2. I have learned to be flexible and open to change.
  3. I have learned the importance of connecting with classroom teachers and advocating for my students. I work with bilingual teachers and mainstream teachers in settings that are more collaborative and less formal than an official individualized education program team or planning meetings. What we do is more about coordinating our work and sharing professional development opportunities and information. We work together like this because we know it will make our jobs easier and ultimately benefit of our students.

I think that the best way teachers and schools can help English learners, students with disabilities and all kids is by working with their parents. Reach out and learn how to effectively communicate with parents of English learners because this can be absolutely crucial to a child’s success in school. We, as teachers, can be someone who influences our students’ whole trajectory in life.

The most rewarding part of my work with English learners with disabilities is actually saying goodbye to my fifth graders, and knowing they have so much more to do and accomplish! These students make a big impact on me as an individual, especially those who are particularly surprising and the most challenging. I often find that my students who seem tough and rugged throughout the year are the same students who cry and hug me on the last day of school.


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

Erica Sommer
Posted by
Special Education Teacher Del Valle Independent School District, Del Valle, Texas

October and Disability Awareness

ICYMI "In Case You Missed It!"

In addition to announcing OSEP’s new director, Laurie VanderPloeg, and interviewing Caryl Jaques at Little One’s University preschool, this October, we highlighted aspects of disability awareness for National Disability Employment, Dyslexia, Learning Disabilities, ADHD, and Down Syndrome!

Check out the stories below:


Down Syndrome


Courtney and her twin sons

It Takes a Village | 10/19/2018

Courtney’s twin sons just started kindergarten. This military family also moved across the country this year. Read how she’s advocated for her son with Down syndrome to be included in the same class as his brother.


Rachel, now an Olathe South High School Graduate

I REALLY Love My Life! | 10/12/2018

Rachel, a 19-year-old, loves her family, friends, school, social activities and so much more. She’s traveled to DC and testified in Topeka to talk about laws that will help people with Down syndrome.


ADHD | Dyslexia | Learning Disabilities


Lena McKnight

Learning About My LD: Accepting My Challenges & Finding My Voice | 10/30/2018

Lena struggled through middle and high school, but she eventually earned her GED, an associate’s degree and a bachelor’s degree. Read how Lena learned more about her learning disability, accepted her challenges and found her voice.


Strong Foundations School logo

Public Charter School Founded to Provide Excellent Reading Instruction to All | 10/29/2018

Beth McClure envisioned a school designed specifically to provide excellent reading instruction to all students, so she started Strong Foundations School, a public charter school.


Veronica and Myriam Alizo

From Miami to New Jersey | 10/25/2018

Myriam recounts her journey from a young, new mom learning her daughter had a speech delay and attention issues to a career assisting other parents of children with disabilities to help them navigate their rights and get involved in their child’s education.


Dylan and Nicola at the beach

Reflections on Where We’ve Been: A Mother and Son’s Journey with Dyslexia | 10/23/2018

Dylan is a college sophomore, a soccer player and ceramic artist who loves to travel the world when there’s time. He also has dyslexia. Dylan and his mom share their story in hopes of inspiring others.


Douglas Rawan II, a sixth-grader with dyslexia

My Truth About Dyslexia―What I Wish for Other Kids With Dyslexia and Their Parents | 10/09/2018

Sixth-grade student pens blog about dyslexia in “My Truth About Dyslexia—What I Wish for Other Kids with Dyslexia and Their Parents.”


Candice Crissinger and children

High Achievement Requires High Expectations: My Family’s Story | 10/04/2018

One mom, two sons 10 years apart in age. Candice shares her family’s story of the vastly different experiences they had when seeking educational supports and services for her sons with disabilities and ADHD.


National Disability Employment Awareness Month


Hands On Hyatt trainees

Hands On/Hyatt | 10/31/2018

Hands On Educational Services, Inc., a vocational training program that prepares individuals with disabilities for careers in the hospitality industry, celebrates its 20th year of partnering with Hyatt.


WINTAC logo

Meeting WIOA Requirements: Workforce Innovation Technical Assistance | 10/31/2018

Learn different ways to stay current with employment trends related to the workforce and people with disabilities.


Way2Work Maryland logo

Way2Work: Helping Marylanders with Disabilities Transition into the Workforce | 10/30/2018

Way2Work helps Marylanders with disabilities transition into the workforce. Check out some of their success stories!


Alaska and Nevada VR Websites

Successful Work Experiences | 10/26/2018

The Alaska Division of Vocational Rehabilitation and Nevada Ready show how states are creating programs to help youth with disabilities transition into a work environment.


Logo - National Technical Assistance Center on Transition (NTACT)

Transition Resources Help Agencies and Service Providers Support Youth with Disabilities | 10/24/2018

The National Technical Assistance Center on Transition (NTACT) has many resources that help state and local education agencies, state vocational rehabilitation agencies, VR service providers and other service providers prepare student with disabilities for successful postsecondary education and employment.


Veronica and Victor

ASPIRE! | 10/22/2018

With the help of ASPIRE, families in Arizona, Colorado, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Utah are taking charge of their futures, learning about benefits available in their state, and more.


Logo - National Clearinghouse of Rehabilitation Training Materials (NCRTM)

Finding Rehabilitation Training Materials: RSA Technical Assistance and Other Resources | 10/22/2018

OSERS Rehabilitation Services Administration’s grant recipients offer numerous training materials and resources for those interested in vocational rehabilitation. Learn how to find these resources through the National Clearinghouse of Rehabilitation Training Materials (NCRTM).


Nyrka

Meriden Public Schools’ Community Classroom Collaborative | 10/18/2018

Meriden K–12, a Connecticut public school, gets creative to help students like Nyrka find success by bridging the gap between school and adult life.


AR PROMISE logo

The Importance of Connection | 10/17/2018

The Arkansas PROMISE program shows how a personalized connection between youth & their families and case managers can leave a positive, lasting impact on youth with disabilities.


Kwik Trip Storefront

Kwik Trip | 10/16/2018

The Wisconsin Workforce’s Division of Vocational Rehabilitation worked with KwikTrip, a family-owned business of convenience stores, to successfully recruit and train individuals with disabilities for the role of “Retail Helper.


Logo - National Clearinghouse of Rehabilitation Training Materials (NCRTM)

The National Clearinghouse of Rehabilitation Training Materials (NCRTM): Finding Promising and Effective Resources in the Clearinghouse Library

| 10/12/2018

Calling all vocational rehabilitation professionals. Did you know NCRTM provides quick, streamlined access to resources and technical assistance centers funded by OSERS Rehabilitation Services Administration?


Ida and her service dog

Ida’s Success Story—Knocking Down Barriers for Blind People Throughout New Jersey and Beyond | 10/10/2018

Ida’s a Drew University senior with a recent internship and employment offer from JPMorgan. She’s also legally blind. Read Ida’s story and about her work with the New Jersey Department of Human Services Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired.


Christopher Pauley does the Marshmallow Challenge.

“Always Aim High!” | 10/03/2018

Christopher has a computer science degree. Yet, he applied to nearly 600 positions without much success—that was until a California Department of Rehabilitation vocational rehabilitation counselor helped him connect with Microsoft’s Autism Hiring Program.


NDEAM 2018 Poster: Man in a wheelchair conversing with co-workers over laptop computers.

“America’s Workforce: Empowering All” | 10/02/2018

OSERS and OSERS Rehabilitation Services Administration proudly supports numerous programs relevant to National Disability Employment Awareness Month.


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Also, check out related Tweets on OSERS Twitter feed

NDEAM 2018 | Hands On/Hyatt

NOTE: October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month
Hands On Hyatt trainees

In recognition of NDEAM this month and in partnership with the Council of State Administrators of Vocational Rehabilitation, OSERS is pleased to highlight another successful partnership that State VR agencies have established with educational providers and the business community supporting the employment of individuals with disabilities.


Hands On Educational Services, Inc. is vocational training program that prepares individuals with disabilities for careers in the hospitality industry though its partnership with Hyatt Hotels, state vocational rehabilitation (VR) agencies, and local educational agencies. While the partnership began with one Hyatt hotel in Tampa, Florida Hands On now works with over 30 Hyatt hotels in nine states and is celebrating its 20th anniversary.

With funding from state VR agencies and through Hyatt’s Hospitality Training Program, Hands On provides job-readiness training, job coaching, job placement services, and on-the-job training to individuals with disabilities in all aspects of the hotel industry, including culinary, engineering, housekeeping, and guest services. Since the program’s inception, Hyatt has extended job offers to several hundred program graduates.

While they sometimes operate behind the scenes, state VR agencies are often at the nexus of private-public partnerships – simultaneously supporting individuals with disabilities as they prepare for, secure, retain, advance in, or regain employment and the businesses that provide them with career opportunities.

As OSERS partners with states to administer the VR program, one of the core workforce development programs authorized under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, OSERS is committed to strengthening partnerships and maintaining high expectations for the millions of individuals with disabilities the VR program serves.

For more information about the VR program in Florida, visit our partners at the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation and the Division of Blind Services. To learn more about Hands On, visit them online or through Facebook.


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

Kathleen West Evans, Director of Business Relations, Council of State Administrators of Vocational Rehabilitation (CSAVR)
Posted by
Director of Business Relations, Council of State Administrators of Vocational Rehabilitation (CSAVR)
Chris Pope
Posted by
Rehabilitation Services Administration, Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, U.S. Department of Education

Meeting WIOA Requirements: Workforce Innovation Technical Assistance

WINTAC logo

For National Disability Employment Awareness Month, check out the many resources available in the National Clearinghouse of Rehabilitation Training Materials (NCRTM), funded by the Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA). Bookmark the NCRTM RSA Technical Assistance & Other Resources page for quick access to the RSA portal, RSA TA centers and funded projects, Workforce Innovation Opportunity Act (WIOA) federal partners, other resources and research databases.

In this final blog of a three-part blog series from NCRTM, we offer ways to stay current with employment trends related to the workforce and people with disabilities. View first blog and second blog from NCRTM.


Workforce Innovation Technical Assistance Center (WINTAC)

The WINTAC helps state vocational rehabilitation (VR) agency staff, rehabilitation professionals and service providers develop the skills and processes needed to meet the requirements of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA).

The WINTAC provides technical assistance and training in five topic areas that include:

You can find links to all of these topic areas with resources and information at WINTAC.

 

The Career Index logo

The Career Index Plus

The Career Index Plus (TCI+) includes state and local salary data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, job trends and projections, current job openings, license requirements and certifications, education and experience requirements, and 200,000 training programs.

TCI+, offered through WINTAC, is a career information system that collects labor market information from a host of resources and deposits the information onto a single, user-friendly site. Access to TCI+ is free and the data is the most recent available.

The people behind TCI+ have spent almost 20 years specializing in labor-related data and are constantly combing a large array of sources to give VR professionals actionable labor market information for better, more informed career choices.

The following resources are presented through a collaboration between WINTAC and TCI+ and are intended to provide a comprehensive approach to training on this valuable resource.

  • Short Training Videos
    • Short training videos, each under 10 minutes in length
    • Provide VR professionals with short, direct, and relevant training materials on using features from TCI+
  • TCI+ Recorded Webinars 
    • Recorded from live webinars
    • Provide in-depth, comprehensive information and training on using The Career Index Plus.
  • TCI+ Resources
    • Provide VR agencies with training and informational materials on adopting The Career Index Plus as a labor market information tool.
  • Labor Market Information Resources
    • Provide VR agencies with comprehensive information on labor market data.

Do you want to keep up-to-date with new VR resources as they are added to the NCRTM? Follow them on Twitter @RSA_NCRTM and subscribe to their monthly New from NCRTM newsletter.


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

Learning About My LD: Accepting My Challenges & Finding My Voice

October is Learning Disabilities/Dyslexia/Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) Awareness Month

Lena McKnight


Have you ever sat in a classroom and your teacher asks everyone to read a paragraph out loud? You skim through to see which paragraph has the easiest words to read out loud.

That was me. I was the young girl shaking in my boots when I knew I had to read out loud. Often, I would try to identify the “easy” paragraph, and if I couldn’t find one, I would make the class laugh by getting myself into trouble and taking the pressure off me. I was scared, although everyone thought I was the girl who didn’t fear anything and was tough. I was scared because I saw others do things that I struggled with. Middle school was hard for me. Not only was I dealing with social pressure, but keeping up with my academics was a lot of work in and of itself.

Have you ever just felt like you were different from others? Have you thought that people wouldn’t understand when you expressed your thoughts?

It was very hard for me share the challenges I was facing and explain what was going on for me. I always thought people would think there was something wrong with me. People still tell me, “you’re a tough girl, don’t sweat it.” As a young student, I didn’t talk about my struggles as a way to avoid embarrassment.

What I didn’t know back then was that I have a learning disability. I struggled every day with reading and processing issues. No one had explained to me what my learning disability meant. I had no idea that my individualized education program (IEP) could actually help me succeed. I couldn’t understand how I could do so well in my theatre classes but struggle in others.

Eventually, I fell so far behind in high school that I was not allowed to take any arts classes. I had too many academic classes I needed to complete if I wanted to graduate. So, I dropped out of school. I remember thinking that I would never get a GED (general equivalency degree). But with hard work and determination, I passed the GED exam after trying three times. I was so proud when I passed, and I wouldn’t believe it if anyone told me that I had a disability or needed extra supports after that to succeed. It wasn’t until college that I discovered I was still having trouble.

Soon after getting my GED, I began working at Harlem Children’s Zone. I was listening to the disability specialist speak about the problems high school students will encounter when they enter college. It clicked for me. For the first time, I was able to explain the challenges I faced and I admitted to the specialist that I had an IEP while I was in school. The specialist helped me get testing done so that I would finally be able to prove that I have a learning issue and could receive supports in college. It was like the world turned upside down. I was finally able to get the help I needed. I saw the “perks” of having a disability and getting the services I was entitled to. And, for the first time, I understood what it was I needed help with.

It took me a long time, but I have finally found my voice. I used to be ashamed to talk about my learning issues because I thought I was the only one who struggled, and I worried no one would believe me. But accepting who I am and taking the time to understand what I need has made all the difference. I was lucky to have advocates and people who believed in me. Because of them, I believe in myself and have achieved more than I once thought I could. I am grateful for the ones who stood up with me. Without them, I wouldn’t be who I am today, and I wouldn’t be working to empower others to speak up as well.

Every person with a learning disability deserves the chance to realize their potential and reach their dreams. Understanding yourself and being able to ask for what you need is the first and most important step.


Lena McKnight was born in Norfolk, Virginia and raised in Harlem, New York. She attended public school in New York City until 10th grade and later enrolled in a YouthBuild program where she achieved a High School Equivalency Diploma. Lena then went on to graduate with an associate’s degree and later a bachelor’s degree in Theatre and Sociology in May 2017. Lena has served as a Student Advocate for 10th graders through the Harlem Children Zone and remains involved with YouthBuild. She now works full time and devotes her career to serving kids in her community. Lena is committed to using her voice to have a positive impact on the field of education and on society at large.


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

Way2Work: Helping Marylanders with Disabilities Transition into the Workforce

This is the final blog in a series of three blogs in October from the National Technical Assistance Center on Transition (NTACT) to honor National Disability Employment Awareness Month.


Way2Work Maryland logo

Way2Work Maryland is a project designed to improve the academic and career success of students with disabilities in Maryland through work-based learning experiences.

The project is open to any student with an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or a 504 Plan who will complete high school with a diploma or certificate in 2020.

The project focuses on helping students engage in paid or unpaid work experiences, aligned with their interests and skills, while supporting a student’s academic success to complete high school.

During the 2018-19 school year, seven Maryland counties engaged in the program for juniors and other students who are two years away from finishing high school.

The program is a partnership of the Maryland’s Department of Education, Maryland’s Division of Rehabilitation Services, the American Job Center Network, and the Department of Counseling, Higher Education, and Special Education at the University of Maryland.

The following stories highlight the work done by those Way2Work Maryland serves.

Rose’s Story

RoseRose has always loved animals. Dogs, cats, horses, sheep—she loves them all. So, when she met her job developer, Wayne from Humanin, a job development/ career placement agency, there was no question about what industry to place her in.

Wayne was quick to connect Rose with a volunteer job at Chesapeake Therapeutic Riding School in Maryland.

Even though Rose had never worked in a stable, she quickly became one of the center’s top volunteers.

“She comes in and gets right to work,” said Kathleen Schmitt, executive director and founder of CTR. “She always has a smile on her face.”

Rose has achieved proficiency in grooming and feeding the horses, mucking stalls, and performing general barn duties.

When Rose completes this work-based learning experience, she will be qualified to work as a trainee at a horse farm anywhere.

Lisa Miceli, Rose’s mom and biggest advocate, said, “I want her to keep coming here, even if she gets another job. It’s been such a great experience for her.”

Karli’s Story

KarliKarli dreamed of finding a job that would combine her three loves: photography, art and design. Her first work-based learning experience was heavy on the art, but light on photography and design.

Her new job at Silver Linings Lavender, which she got through Way2Work, has everything she was looking for, but it took a positive attitude to find it.

Karli’s first day on the job was the day of the Pride Parade in Westminster, Maryland, one of the busiest retail days of the year. Traffic in the small boutique on Main Street was non-stop all day.

“There was a line out the door. Products were flying off the shelf,” says Dawn Pritchard, Silver Linings Lavender’s owner.

Having Karli’s help that day was really important; she re-stocked the shelves as quickly as they became empty.

“I can’t sell product if it’s not on the shelf,” says Dawn. “That day, I didn’t lose any money.”

According to Dawn, “To be in retail, you really have to be an extrovert.”

Karli is a shy person, and interacting with customers wasn’t her favorite thing. After that first day, Karli thought, “I wouldn’t want to do this for a living.”

Not wanting to interact with customers in a store could be a problem for someone who is shy like Karli; however, there’s a silver lining.

Dawn opened Silver Linings Lavender in 2013 as an online store, but it wasn’t until September 2017 that she expanded into a brick and mortar store. The majority of her business is still online, and that’s where Karli shines.

Now, at Silver Linings Lavender, Karli is learning to do online marketing and using her love of photography, art and design in a retail setting.

Dawn gave her an office and a computer, with software such as Photoshop and InDesign.

It’s a win-win for employer and employee.

“I didn’t have anyone to teach me (about business),” said Dawn, “so I’m happy to share what I know and spread the word.”

Coardell’s Story

CoardellBy day, Coardell is pursuing a trade in welding at Worcester Technical High School. He doesn’t love welding, but it’s better than any of the jobs he’s had at MacDonald’s or Walmart, or washing dishes at a restaurant in Ocean City, Maryland

Outside of school, though, Coardell has other passions. He amazes audiences with his dance moves. He has performed in venues all over Maryland’s Eastern Shore as well as in New York, and he dreams of making a living as a dancer and rapper one day.

Someone with the soul of a dancer might feel restricted and confined in the tight quarters of a welding booth, and the protective gear that welders wear—including a heavy mask—might make it hard for a dancer to move his feet.

Way2Work helped Coardell get a job at Go Glass, a shop that specializes in residential, commercial and auto glass. At Go Glass, Coardell has room to bust a move now and then.

“I finally found something I enjoy doing,” he says.

In addition to having room to move when he has the urge, a crucial piece of Coardell’s success is his mentor, Jeffrey Sewell.

Having a supportive person to show Coardell the ropes and to nudge him when he gets distracted has meant the difference between floundering and feeling comfortable on the shop floor.

Jeff is teaching Coardell all about the glass business—how to cut and install auto glass, table tops, mirrors and doors. He’s also teaching Coardell how to make window and door screens for homes and businesses.

Coardell has learned how to use a tape measure, how to cut glass, and how to keep the blades sharp by storing them in auto coolant. Each time Jeff gives Coardell a little bit more responsibility, Coardell grows more confident.

“He’s a good worker,” said Jeff. “He comes in and gets right to work.”

Way2Work Coordinator, Tammy Hauck, said she knew the environment Go Glass would accommodate Coardell’s needs. “It suits him,” said Tammy. “It gives him more space to be himself.”

Tim’s Story

TimAfter just two months on the job at Avenue Tailor and Cleaners in Westminster, Maryland, Tim is already looking forward to a big promotion.

This summer, he will receive management training and take over as manager of the store’s Gettysburg, Pennsylvania location.

“Dry cleaning was never my first thought,” says Tim. “But it worked for me.”

Tim has always wanted to work at or own a shoe store, so his job developer, Megan O’Neill of Schapiro Training & Employment Program (STEP), a Carroll County, MD supported employment agency, thought the small business on Main Street might be a good fit. She was right.

The experience he has gained at Avenue is pointing him toward college and a degree in business.

Working two-three hours a day, five days a week, Tim drives the company vehicle and picks up and delivers dry cleaning in four locations around Carroll County, Maryland. In his new job, he will learn how to work the front counter, interact with customers and gain an insider’s view of the operation.

According to Tim’s dad, Brian Wall, the job at Avenue Tailor, for which Tim is paid, has made a tremendous change in Tim.

Brian sees his son being more engaged in school and having a more positive attitude in general. Tim even signed up for the SATs on his own to the surprise and delight of his parents.

“I wish Way2Work would have been available when I was in high school,” said Brian. “You can’t put a price tag on experience.”


The National Technical Assistance Center on Transition (NTACT), funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) and the Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA), assists state and local education agencies, state vocational rehabilitation (VR) agencies and VR service providers in implementing evidence-based and promising practices to help ensure students with disabilities, including those with significant disabilities, graduate prepared for success in postsecondary education and employment.

Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

Public Charter School Founded to Provide Excellent Reading Instruction to All

Strong Foundations School logo

Assistant Secretary Johnny Collett and Deputy Assistant Secretary Kim Richey visited Strong Foundations Charter School during the 2018 Back-to-School Tour.

October is Learning Disabilities/Dyslexia/Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) Awareness Month.


Seven years ago, one of my former students came to visit me and see the school I helped to found, Strong Foundations Charter School, a public charter school formed to provide excellent reading instruction to all students.

My former student was home from college where he majored in music and also played in two successful bands nearby. As we walked through the halls, he saw the elementary students working, some of whom were in Orton-Gillingham class—a structured reading approach to help students learn to read. I remarked that if he had been in a school like this, he might not have had to struggle so much with reading when he was younger.

His reply was bittersweet to me. “If I had been to a school like this, I might have been able to be your friend sooner.”

Translation: I might not have seen teachers as the enemy and schools as the battleground for so much of my childhood.

As a young teacher, nothing hurt worse than knowing I could teach someone how to read, but having them be so emotionally damaged from failure that they didn’t even want to try.

Time after time, that was my experience.

When I first began working with the student I quoted above, he was in the sixth grade. A bright mathematician, he had never learned to read despite his teachers’ efforts. Now it was my job to teach him to read and spell. For the first three months, every reading lesson was met with refusal and anger. Gradually, he began to have success and respond to my encouragement until finally, by the end of the year, we could accomplish an entire lesson in one sitting.

I had recently been trained in using the Orton-Gillingham approach. I worked as a special educator in a small private school in New Hampshire, and this student was one of many with a similar story. After years of failure, the first hurdle to help them overcome was their hopelessness when faced with the prospect of trying one more time.

I knew, though, that the English language is actually logical and can be taught systematically.

In my experiences, a multisensory structured literacy approach is essential for dyslexic learners and can also be beneficial to all learners.

At Strong Foundations, we accept all students at all academic levels, from low-achieving to high-achieving. Every student receives Orton-Gillingham instruction in a group as part of their regular education curriculum because we believe it is beneficial for all learners. We also believe it will prevent many students from ever struggling to learn to read. We work on building background knowledge using the Core Knowledge curriculum, a sequenced curriculum for kindergarten through eighth grade students.

In the classroom, students receive Orton-Gillingham instruction at a differentiated pace. Students identified with a learning disability in reading normally receive additional Orton-Gillingham instruction at a therapeutic level, so it reinforces what they have learned in the classroom.

Our hope at Strong Foundations Charter School has always been that more schools would see our success and would use structured literacy approaches from the beginning of a child’s reading instruction.

I would like to see teacher-training programs include training in structured literacy approaches so that all elementary and special education teachers are prepared to teach reading.

It has not happened as quickly as I had hoped, but I am seeing some progress.

The story of my student I mentioned above has a very happy ending. I worked with him through ninth grade, when he let his parents know he wanted to stop tutoring because he wanted to learn to play an instrument. His tutoring time with me conflicted with music lessons. We all agreed that if he could maintain his academics without my help, he could “fire me.” He went on to graduate from high school, earn a four-year degree from a prestigious college of music and now works as a professional musician.


Beth McClure has served as the principal of Strong Foundations Charter School for twelve years. She earned a master’s in learning and language disabilities and a master’s in Educational Administration. She is a fellow of the Academy of Orton-Gillingham Practitioners and Educators and currently serves as its president. She recently joined the Professional Standards Board of the New Hampshire Department of Education. Her favorite professional activity is teaching reading.


The U.S. Department of Education does not endorse specific curriculums or approaches to education. Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy. 

“Voices from the Field” Interview with Caryl Jaques, Director, Little One’s University, Essex Junction, VT

Caryl Jaques

Assistant Secretary Johnny Collett and Deputy Assistant Secretary Kim Richey visited Little One’s University during the 2018 Back-to-School Tour.

Caryl Jaques is the Director of Little One’s University in Essex Junction, Vermont. She earned a bachelor’s of science degree in education with a concentration in psychology at the University of Vermont as well as a master’s degree in education.  She is licensed to teach children ages birth through sixth grade and has been directing child care centers since 1997. Caryl opened Little One’s University in May of 2009 and guided the center to earn a four-star rating in Vermont’s Quality Rating and Improvement System (QRIS) and continuously works to improve the quality of the program.   She is also the proud mother of six children ranging in age from three months to 18 years old. 


How did you begin your career in early childhood?

I graduated from University of Vermont with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education with a concentration in child psychology. I was offered one teaching position but it was too far from my house to commute each day so I started working in a child care center with younger children. I fell in love with it and after a year became the director of the program. We expanded the program from serving just preschoolers (3–5 year-olds) to a program that served infants through 6 year-olds. While I was there, I also went to school and earned a master’s degree in education, which gave me the skills to begin to address the high staff turnover rate. I created an in-house training program that gave staff the opportunity to become lead teachers. After 12 years I decided it was time to open my own child care center. In the new center my teachers and I built a program based on love and empathy for children. Over time our center became known as the center that would take children who were asked to leave other child care centers due do behavioral challenges. Parents of these children struggled to find child care and they absolutely felt the love and commitment we were willing to invest in their children. A high percent of the children we served were at-risk due to being exposed to trauma and toxic stress. Most of these families received subsidies for child care and were not able to pay their co-pay. We became a resource poor center serving the most at-risk population. Love was not enough to provide these children with what they needed. We had excellent teachers but were missing the developmentally appropriate books and materials. We desperately wanted to improve quality but found very little support for programs that were starting out.

What strategies did you use to improve the quality of the early learning experiences you provide?

Five years ago we were selected by the Caring Collaborative as one of the early childhood sites they worked with to infuse resources and services to increase the quality and support families that were living below the poverty level received. This partnership provided our center with materials and resources that helped increase the quality of care and education that our teachers were providing.  The Caring Collaborative provided the financial means for us to engage in trainings on how to work with children that suffered from high levels of trauma and toxic stress. This helped us improve our quality, and as our quality increased so did the money coming in from the child care subsidies (Vermont’s Quality Rating and Improvement System (QRIS)—known as STARS is connected to the state’s tiered reimbursement subsidy system, the higher your center’s star-rating the higher reimbursement you receive for the child care subsidy). The extra money allowed us to purchase materials that helped us continue to increase our quality, which brought new partnerships for our center. For example, we were chosen by the Howard Center to become a therapeutic child care center. This partnership gave us access to professionals with degrees and experience working with children with severe behavioral challenges. We were then more able to identify and meet the needs of our families. We developed a food program through a partnership with our local school district, and we were also able to offer yoga and arts programs for children. We added an onsite resource coordinator to connect families to resources outside of the center in areas that families need support such as finding secure housing. We were no longer a program that just loved children but we were a program doing great things for children and families.

Due to the increase in quality and exposure from the partnership with the Caring Collaborative, our center was able to create a partnership with the Essex Westford School District. The state received a federal Preschool Development Grant (PDG) and our local Essex school district was a subgrantee for the PDG expansion. The school district needed additional high quality classrooms and asked us if we were interested. This partnership meant we could serve four year olds in a high quality classroom and we could hire a licensed teacher with the district paying a percentage of the teacher’s salary. By the district paying a percentage of the salary, we could have 2 assistant teachers in the classroom and buy developmentally appropriate furniture, books, materials and toys for the classroom. The funding that supported the 4 year old classroom allowed us to focus our resources on other classrooms. Overall it helped us improve our quality across the center.  We went from being rated as a two star center (on our state’s QRIS) to almost the highest star rating (five). The great thing is that when you are rated higher on the state’s QRIS you receive a higher reimbursement rate for children receiving the state child care subsidy. We also noticed that with our higher rating we began to attract families that paid out of pocket for child care (not through the subsidy). Without this partnership with the school district we never would have been able to improve our quality.

Johnny and Kim visit Caryl and other special educators in Vermont during 2018 back to school tour.

Johnny and Kim visit Caryl and other early learning providers/special educators in Vermont during 2018 back to school tour.

Why do you think the early learning years are so important?

The early years are so important because they set the foundation for future learning and adulthood. The quality of experiences that a young child has directly impacts the child’s social, emotional and physical development and the adult they will become.  In my experience both with my own children and those attending my center, there is a difference in kids who had access to high quality early learning programs and those who didn’t, which can be seen as they enter elementary school. When we were trying to love children through their tough experiences without resources, it wasn’t enough! When you are able to provide children with high quality experiences you see challenging behaviors diminish and an overall reduction in stress not just for the child and teacher but also for the families. High quality programs have a huge impact on the relationships between a child and his or her family.

How do you work with families?

It is really important to create a strong sense of community among the families you serve. When a child attends our center we are clear at the beginning that we are a partner with the family and that we believe families are their child’s first teacher. We use the strengthening families self-assessment tool for early care and education programs to help promote positive relationships with families. We host family nights once a month in the center bringing families together to discuss different topics and build community. We also have a community swap where families can bring in things they no longer need and trade them for other materials they might need for their home. For families that have children with challenging behaviors, we’ve learned about the importance of building a positive home/school relationship from the beginning so they trust us and understand that our goal is to help their child be successful, not make them feel bad about their parenting. We do our best to engage families early knowing that many of them may not have had the best experiences in school. We also rely on the special interventionists that come to work with some of our children. They often will help with specific strategies we can implement in the classroom and that families can try at home.

What suggestions do you have to improve early childhood services and programs?

There are so many amazing people and resources in the early care and education field. Child care center directors and staff often become isolated and feel like they are responsible for solving the world’s problems alone. My advice is to be open and honest, invite people in and collaborate to best meet the needs of the children you serve.


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

Successful Work Experiences

Alaska and Nevada VR Websites

NOTE: October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month.


The National Technical Assistance Center on Transition (NTACT) assists state and local education agencies and VR agencies and service providers, and it keeps close contact with these agencies and providers in order to share real stories of real youth being supported in transition programs. Alaska and Nevada are just two of the states that are creating programs to help youth with disabilities transition into a work environment.

Alaska Division of Vocation Rehabilitation

Alaska Division of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR) provided pre-employment transition service—a requirement of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunities Act (WIOA) activities to 802 Alaskan students this year through a number of statewide initiatives including Transition Camps and its Summer Work programs.

Transition Camps

Transition Camps help students develop a vision for what their future can be by exposing them to career exploration and the resources they may need to successfully transition from school to work. These camps, located in predominantly rural areas of the state and juvenile justice facilities, served 236 students. Transition camps are a partnership between DVR, Disability Employment Initiative (DEI), and the Department of Education.

Summer Work Programs

Summer Work, a partnership program between DVR and DEI, focused on providing students with disabilities with a chance to have a paid 160-hour work experience to become work ready. Summer Work served 182 students in 2018, and 99 Alaskan businesses provided work sites for students engaged in the program. Summer Work programs are implemented by school districts and community agencies in rural and urban areas. This year’s big success was the Cordova School District summer program. Eight of the 14 students who participated transitioned to competitive integrated employment at the end of their work experience!

Nevada Department of Education

The Nevada Department of Education hosts and organizes the annual Nevada Student Leadership Transition Summit (NSLTS). The summit provides a forum for high school students with disabilities to participate in sessions focused on disability awareness, self-advocacy, resources for career and college planning, and networking events with providers and other teens across the state.

NSLTS can have a lasting impact on people’s lives.

Kascia Tognoli attended the NSLTS in 2008 and 2009 as a student from Lyon County School District’s Yerington High School.

NSLTS helped Kascia realize what she wanted to do for a career. When she reflected on her time at NSLTS to the summit’s organizer Jennifer Kane, Kascia said:

I knew from then on what I really wanted to do which is what I am doing now, helping adults and students with disabilities. I remember going to my mom and telling her what they were talking about at the conference, and that I was going to do that one day. You [NSLTS] are the main reason why I started doing what I do… At the conference I came to terms that I needed to love my disability because it makes me who I am!… I just want to tell you thank you from the bottom of my heart for putting on that conference, it changed my life!

Kascia is employed currently with K.E.T. Consulting, LLC—a provider of Pre-Employment Transition Services in the state.


The National Technical Assistance Center on Transition (NTACT), funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) and the Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA), assists state and local education agencies, state vocational rehabilitation (VR) agencies and VR service providers in implementing evidence-based and promising practices to help ensure students with disabilities, including those with significant disabilities, graduate prepared for success in postsecondary education and employment.


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

From Miami to New Jersey

October is Learning Disabilities/Dyslexia/Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) Awareness Month


Veronica and Myriam Alizo

Veronica and Myriam Alizo

When my first child was born I was a young and inexperienced new mother. My husband and I had just moved to the United States from Venezuela, and we were far away from our relatives.

I wasn’t sure if I should speak English or Spanish to our first daughter, and felt really perplexed. Everyone told us to stick to one language because children might get confused when they were spoken several languages at a time.

Once I realized my daughter had a speech delay and attention issues, I started to read everything I could about early child development. I felt very overwhelmed and isolated.

The pediatrician referred our child to an evaluation center in Miami where we lived. All our concerns and intuition were confirmed: our four-year-old child had some type of learning disability. The year was 1994, and I didn’t know anything about Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) or the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Veronica’s private speech therapy sessions were conducted in Spanish. Since we lived in Miami, a very bilingual community, the Spanish-speaking speech therapist recommended us to enroll our daughter in a bilingual cooperative preschool that existed in the community. The preschool teacher referred our daughter to our school district to have a series of tests. Then, Veronica had her first IEP. A few IEPs later, it was determined that Veronica not only had a learning disability, but she also had “pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified.” In other words, she had a form of autism.

When Veronica was in the fourth grade, I found a flyer in her book bag about an organization that would assist parents of children with IEPs understand their rights. That flyer changed my life!

The organization was Parent to Parent of Miami, a federally funded Community Parent Resource Center in South Florida. I contacted them and got all the information and assistance I needed at the time. Then, I decided that I wanted to work there! I wanted to help other parents, especially immigrant parents like me, understand their rights and get involved in their kids’ IEP process.

My lucky day came a couple of months later when I found another flyer in Veronica’s book bag. This time the flyer said that Parent to Parent of Miami was looking for bilingual parents of children with IEPs to work helping other parents. The year was 2000, I got the job, and I have been working within the Parent Center Network since.

Another big move awaited us, and we ended up living in New Jersey. As soon as I knew we were going to live in NJ, I contacted the SPAN Parent Advocacy Network, the New Jersey Parent Training and Information Center, to get information about the school system in our new state and to get a job or a volunteer position at the parent center. I started working at SPAN in 2003.

During my 15 years at SPAN, I have worked on several different projects from helping parents organize advisory groups to training parent mentors under New Jersey Parent to Parent to coordinating the OSEP English to Spanish Translation Glossary project to working on two national projects assisting parent centers across the regions.

My trajectory at SPAN has helped me empower my daughters to speak up, fight for their rights and have high expectations in their lives. It also has made me appreciate the impact of the civil rights and the disability movements in our society at the local and national level as well as globally as an international community.

Veronica attended a public high school in northern New Jersey where students with and without IEPs share the same building; and for most of the students, they also share classrooms and after-school activities. Veronica grew up in a naturally inclusive environment and was part of her high school basketball team. She participated in several SPAN transition-to-adulthood trainings and workshops. In addition to her high school academic courses, Veronica sampled jobs in the community, volunteered for several years at a summer camp for younger children in the spectrum, and learned to use public transportation as part of her IEP goals.

Now, Veronica is an adult who takes classes at the local community college and has a very active social life that includes a fiancée. Recently she got her driver’s permit and was admitted into the 2018-2019 New Jersey Partners in Policy Making cohort.

As for speaking English and Spanish with my daughters, I speak both languages with them, and it’s wonderful.


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

Posted by
Center for Parent Information and Resources (CPIR) at the SPAN Parent Advocacy Network