“Voices from the Field” Interview with Monica Adrian

Monica Adrian

Monica Adrian

Monica Adrian is a program manager and behavior support specialist for the Merced County Office of Education (MCOE) in California. She has created and helped establish innovative programs that focus on developmental screenings and social skills and behavioral intervention. These programs include Caring Kids, which provides training and support for parents, teachers, child care providers, and social workers. Adrian is an Act Early Ambassador to California for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Learn the Signs. Act Early campaign. In this role, she helps promote ongoing developmental monitoring; helping children with delays get connected to needed early intervention services in a timely manner.


ED: How did you begin your career in early learning and development?

Monica: Right out of high school I got a job working in a U.S. Department of Defense child care center at the U.S. Air Force base that was in my town at the time. I immediately loved it and knew I wanted a career working with young children. I worked at the child care center while I started college, first earning an associate’s degree in psychology, and then a bachelor’s degree in liberal studies with an emphasis on child studies. After college, I worked for five years with children with autism and their families in their homes; at the same time earning my teaching credentials in special education. When my son was born, I had planned to take a few years and stay home with him. However, when he was three months old, I received a call asking if I was interested in working for Caring Kids, a program that works with families to help their young children from birth to age five develop socially and emotionally. I realized that I missed the work of helping young children to build social skills and reduce their challenging behavior. I took the job and have continued to work with various programs that similarly focus on helping all children reach their potential. I also believe that as a professional I have the responsibility to continue to grow and learn. A year ago, I decided to go back and get a master’s degree in special education with an emphasis on early childhood and I’m almost done!!

ED: What is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Learn the Signs. Act Early campaign, and can you describe your role as the Act Early Ambassador to California?

Monica: Learn the Signs. Act Early. is a public awareness campaign that aims to educate families and caregivers about young children’s development and developmental milestones with the ultimate goal of improving caregivers’ support of early development and increasing the early identification of developmental delays and disabilities. Currently, the campaign has 45 Act Early Ambassadors across the country (California has two). Being an ambassador is a two-year commitment. Our role as ambassadors is to promote ongoing developmental monitoring in our state, and to help make sure young children exhibiting developmental delays are connected to early intervention or early childhood special education services as early as possible. We know that many kids with developmental delays or disabilities are often not identified until they go to school at age five, but this is inconsistent with what we know about brain science and the importance of intervening early. We’ve worked hard with different groups of professionals (doctors, social workers, child care providers, and others) to encourage them to move away from the “wait and see” approach, sharing with them the importance of identifying concerns early. This allows for children and families to be connected with appropriate services and interventions. So many different professionals and family members see and spend time with young children regularly and we want everyone to know what typical development looks like. We want to help families promote optimal development and also be able to identify when there should be concerns with development. Learn the Signs. Act Early. has developed evidenced-based and easy-to-use tools and resources for families and professionals which are free and easy to order. Some of my favorite resources are the Watch Me modules developed for child care providers. These modules train providers on why monitoring children’s development is important; what their role in developmental monitoring is; easy ways to monitor a child’s development; and how to talk with families about their children’s development. Child care providers can access the modules for free in English and Spanish and in using them, can even earn continuing education units (CEUs) or professional growth hours. We are working with the California Department of Education to ensure that early educators receive professional growth hours when they complete the California Early Childhood Online modules.

ED: How has your work improved the quality of early learning and development?

Monica: Merced County is in the central valley of California, right in the middle of the state. This is a region of high needs with minimal resources or services. Through our county office of education’s Early Education Department, we administer several programs that help to ensure quality early care and education services for our community. Our programs focus on promoting optimal development for all young children since we know the impact early experiences have on later academic, health, mental health, and employment outcomes. Most of our programs focus on young children at risk for developmental delays and negative outcomes later in school. We work to help families provide safe, stable, and nurturing environments. Many of the families we encounter live in poverty or are dealing with multiple stressors; this work is hard since we usually can’t remove the stressors. Our goal is to help parents build resiliency and provide a buffer from stressors for their children in spite of the adversity they experience. Given many of the children we work with live in families with pervasive—or, wide-ranging—needs, our approach is multi-generational. Our philosophy is that parents are their children’s first teachers, but parents also need support to fulfil this role. We want to implement a process that supports families in being fully present with their children.

I supervise two programs. First is the Caring Kids program I mentioned earlier. Through this program, we provide home visiting services to young children displaying challenging behavior or delays in social skills, and facilitate weekly social-skills-building playgroups and parenting workshops around the county. The second, our Early Connections program, is a collaboration between our county office of education and our county human services agency. This program conducts developmental screenings with children from birth to age five who have had substantiated cases of child abuse or neglect, and then connects the identified kids to any needed follow-up services. In order to act on the federal mandate that requires all of these children to be screened, our county tasked the Merced County Office of Education’s child development staff, who had the most relevant expertise, to conduct the screenings. They work closely with social workers from the human services agency, a collaboration which has been critical for many of the children with the greatest needs in our county.

ED: What are some of the challenges you have experienced in this work and what strategies have you tried to overcome them?

Monica: One of the challenges is that, as we push to identify more children with developmental delays and disabilities earlier, we need to ensure that the services and service providers who understand how to work with them are available. We really have to look at current systems and policies; identify early learning and intervention champions across disciplines; and empower them to communicate to decision makers the importance of increased funding for mental health and early intervention services, and for programs that are multi-generational. Given the research base, we should be able to make the case to decision makers that investing in these early programs will have long-term financial and social benefits. We really need to think about where we as a community invest our funds. When thinking about how we can better prepare children to enter school on a level playing field, the answer is more than just preschool. We need to look across different systems. As I mentioned before, one useful strategy is to identify champions, like a local school superintendent or principal who understands the importance of early experiences. Individuals in the medical field can also be really helpful advocates. I’m really excited that doctors recently coming out of medical school seem to have a strong understanding of the importance of developmental screenings—we should capitalize on their expertise and the fact that their perspective is one that is likely to influence policy makers.

ED: What suggestions do you have for others interested in promoting developmental screenings?

Monica: Engaging a wide range of stakeholders is really important. Start by having conversations about the importance of developmental screening and how professionals and families can play a role in this. Build a collaborative team of people that represent different agencies and disciplines, be sure to include families, and create and continue to follow an action plan. Consider important questions with this group: What is the vision for children’s future in your community? How does developmental screening fit within this vision? Try not to recreate the wheel; utilize the various resources that are already out there. In addition to resources from Learn the Signs. Act Early., there are great tools available via the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Birth to Five, Watch Me Thrive website. Many states also have a Help Me Grow initiative, which typically focuses on providing resources to best promote developmental screening and monitoring. You can also contact the Learn the Signs. Act Early. ambassador in your state or territory for support.


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.

Monica Adrian
Posted by
Program Manager and Behavior Support Specialist, Merced County Office of Education (MCOE), California

ED Welcomes OSERS Assistant Secretary Johnny Collett

Johnny Collett

Johnny Collett

The U.S. Department of Education welcomed Johnny Collett, the new U.S. Department of Education assistant secretary of the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS), on Jan. 16, 2018.

Collett, a former high school special education teacher, has served as the program director of Special Education Outcomes at the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and as the Kentucky state special education director. Collett has also served as an assistant division director and exceptional children consultant both at the Kentucky Department of Education.

Collett will lead OSERS towards its mission to improve early childhood, educational, and employment outcomes and raise expectations for all people with disabilities, their families, their communities, and the nation.

OSERS comprises the Office of Special Education Programs, which administers the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and the Rehabilitation Service Administration, which administers titles I, III, VI, and VII, as well as Section 509 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended by title IV of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA). OSERS’ Office of the Assistant Secretary administers a number of special projects.

Challenges and Barriers to Successful Employment for Man with Visual Impairment

By Louis Herrera

Louis Herrera

Louis Herrera

I was born with normal eyesight, and at the age of three and a half it was determined that I had a visual impairment. By the time that I was about seven years old, I had lost most of my eyesight.

At the inquisitive age of four, I wanted to know how things work and how a box could have different voices coming out of it. Learning about radios was the beginning of a path to a career in the technology industry.

At the age of 15 I built my first computer at a time when components were starting to decrease in size.

Jerry-Rigged IT Systems

In the early 80s, I went to work for a Fortune 500 aerospace company. I was hired as an “experimental employee” because they had never hired a blind person before.

Back then there was hardly any assistive technology to speak of. Several companies were starting to develop a screen reader for MS-DOS, but in many cases these screen readers only worked with some specific programs.

Some of us with visual impairments, in order to maintain our jobs, had to be creative and figure out a way to generate speech output.

For me, I used an old Votrax speech synthesizer like a printer driver. Every time I wanted to know what was on the screen, I executed a print command that would convert the data on the screen to a format that Votrax could read and then speak aloud in probably the worst speech synthesizer voice that one would want to hear. Nevertheless, I was able to get the job done.

As technology continued to evolve in terms of processing speed and better video graphics, it paved the way for the beginning of a graphical user interface, which today is commonly known as Windows. This progress made it difficult for the blind user to keep up with the new changes because the screen reader at that time could not accommodate off-the-shelf hardware and software improvements. Partially-sighted people had to modify video settings to accommodate their visual requirements.

Mobile Devices

As technology continued to move towards a touch screen environment with no real interaction solution for the blind consumer, it seemed as though the blind and individuals with various degrees of visual impairment would not be able to move away from conventional mechanical user interface technology like the flip phones with the tactile keypad.

Once multilayered technology was introduced to hardware and software developers, companies like Apple and Google started to develop a user interface that consisted of gestures and tapping concepts that allowed for the interaction and execution of commands and operations.

As part of their Universal Access initiative in 2007, Apple introduced VoiceOver, a screen reader output interface for the iPhone 3GS. Apple demonstrated that touch technology could be made accessible for everyone, and in today’s work environment mobile technology is something that we all depend on.

We still have to deal with third-party applications that have the potential to be used by the visually impaired community, but we can’t use these apps because the developers either are not familiar with accessibility coding guidelines or choose to make apps more visually appealing in the hope that screen readers will provide a level of accessibility for the blind or visually impaired user.

One of the first barriers that we had to deal with had to do with educating the developers on what text-to-speech technology is and how it differs from speech recognition. This has been a problem for a long time and will continue to be a problem that affects us because developers believe speech recognition programs meet our needs. The reality is that these programs make it possible to receive speech input, but they do not read what appears on the screen.

In the case of smartphones, many app developers feel that built-in artificial intelligence (AI) programs are the same as the devices’ built-in screen readers (Apple’s Siri vs. VoiceOver, Android’s Google Assistant vs. TalkBack, Windows’ Cortana vs. Narrator) and that the built-in AI programs are all the visually-impaired user requires. Unfortunately, these AI programs are voice-driven search services that will in most instances provide audio feedback, but they are not screen readers that function without internet connectivity.

The issues described above are quite common in the desktop environment as well. The best way to resolve this issue is by requiring developers to submit their applications to a level of accessibility compliance verification before an application is deployed.

Technology in the Workplace

While technology has come a very long way and has made it possible for the blind and visually impaired to be competitive employees, there are many road blocks to still overcome for equality in the workplace.

Even with all the new advances in technology and software development today, blind or visually impaired professionals are still encountering barriers with their ability to carry out their job duties.

For example, the idea of providing PDF file attachments so that anyone, regardless of the platform being used, should be able to open the file can sometimes be an issue for some of us that use screen readers or screen magnification tools.

Often because of company policy, we are issued a computer equipped with a common commercially-available PDF reader, which does not do well making PDF images accessible. Some companies, like my employer, have smart printers/copiers that can scan a document and generate a PDF image that is not easily converted to text that can be read by the screen reader. Sometimes it is easier to print the image file and then use an optical character recognition tool to scan and read it. This is time consuming and a waste of paper.

Another on-the-job issue that we face is a lack of quality interaction and support with Information Technology (IT). While the IT staff is able to maintain and support staff using the general issued computers and software, they often don’t have the knowledge or experience to install, configure and maintain the adaptive technology.

If the IT specialist installs the specialized adaptive software, many times they do not install it correctly causing the program to fail to operate properly or at all due to the lack of the resource requirements needed for the software to run efficiently.

This is like keeping a car engine pristine with four flat tires.

In many cases, permission to update the software as needed is denied due to company policies, which leaves the assistive technology unable to keep up with the many updates and changes that the operating system and other programs the IT department regularly update to keep the hardware and software running at peak performance.

Support in the Workplace

My previous job as well as other companies will hire an assistive technology specialist to install the needed software and provide specialized scripting for the software to run on the company created software.

The software runs great until the first major update the IT specialist pushes to all computers on the network. This can affect scripting performance that was created so that the disabled user could fulfill his/her job. Often the assistive technology user has to make due with inadequate software accommodations until the company will bring in the assistive technology specialist again at a substantial fee to reinstall the scripts or create new ones if needed.

These costs and roadblocks could be minimized if employers include the employee who will be using the assistive technology so that he or she can provide input during the discussion and planning phase up to the point that it gets delivered and installed.

Developing and implementing all-inclusive collaborative meetings to address assistive technology needs will yield a more positive interactive communication and success among all participants.


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.

Our Highs are Higher

Carrie Woodcock and her family posing in front of a lovely rural stream

Carrie Woodcock and family

Carrie Woodcock is director of the Maine Parent Federation and a parent of 10-year-old Sami who has Down syndrome.


This summer, I attended a conference alongside doctors, nurses, physician assistants, therapists and other medical professionals, all of whom work with children with special healthcare needs and disabilities. I was there to represent parent voices as the director of the Maine Parent Federation, an OSEP-funded Parent Information Center. I am a big supporter of, and was very excited for, the keynote presenter that day, Dr. Brian Skotko.

Dr. Skotko is a genetic specialist and co-director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Down Syndrome Program. He has also gone on to facilitate the creation of many such clinical programs throughout Massachusetts. I was first introduced to him at the annual Massachusetts Down Syndrome Conference. I was so impressed with our first encounter that now, whenever I attend events at which he’s speaking, I always attend his sessions—regardless of their subject matter—and  always walk away having learned something new.

At the conference we attended this summer, Dr. Skotko discussed the impact of a Down syndrome diagnosis on the immediate family. He and his staff had conducted some of the first surveys of parents, siblings and individuals with Down syndrome. To say that I was thrilled that a physician and sibling of an individual with Down syndrome himself took this opportunity to raise awareness for family engagement, a crucial subject many times overlooked by medical professionals, was an understatement. His data were brought to life by his personal experiences, and were overwhelmingly positive. They indicated that a large majority of surveyed immediate family members love and are proud of their family member with Down syndrome.

During a question and answer period following the presentation, a professional in the front of the room challenged some of the data Dr. Skotko had presented. She brought to his attention that perhaps the data were positively skewed because parents and family members would have guilt associated with speaking negatively about their experiences and, ultimately, their own family member. Well, I am not one to hold my tongue, but I did have to pause to ensure I reigned in my “mommy” emotions and represented the parent voice in an assertive yet positive way.

In that moment, memories from my 10 years of being a mom to my precious gift rushed back. Some of the first feelings to come back to me were those that I have been ashamed to admit as a parent. For example, the diagnosis at my daughter’s birth had me thinking that I would always be a parent to a child living at home. The hours in the hospital enduring her open heart surgeries had brought me emotionally to my knees, wishing my child was healthy. I recalled the times her anxiety caused bathroom accidents in public places, which had me wishing for normalcy. Listening to friends talk about their gifted and talented children had me feeling like an outsider. I remember feeling sad because the birthday party and play date invites were few and far between, if at all. For a second I thought that maybe this woman was right; maybe I do sugar coat my family’s reality because I am too ashamed to admit otherwise.

But in the next moment, I saw Sami’s hand reaching for my mom’s face, days after open heart surgery. This was the first expression of her personality shining through. I remembered my toddler son translating her words and being so proud that he was the only one who could understand her. We celebrated her first everything and then celebrated her first everything all over again when she regained a lost skill. I recalled the way that, no matter where we are, she makes people smile, no matter what kind of day they may be having. And the oh-so-many little things in life I would have completely overlooked were it not for her.

I gathered my thoughts, raised my hand, and explained this concept to the group. In fact, the professional that asked the question was right; the challenges are hard and often. We do have doubts about our ability to parent and yes, horrifyingly enough, we will ask “why me?”

However, we celebrate and appreciate all that is positive. We do this in a way that is bigger than any outsider could know, and we do it time and time again. The impact has been so positive—my family completely changed for the better the moment Sami came into our lives. In addition to the daily joy we experience with her, all of us are dedicated to her cause, and the cause of others. My professional career has shifted from sales and marketing to assisting families with their own special loved ones. My husband, who was and still is a physical education teacher, has brought her spirit to the way he interacts with his students, including those with special needs. Lastly, but perhaps my proudest family accomplishment, is how Sami refers to her 13-year-old brother as her hero. No matter the circumstance, he shows no embarrassment towards her, only love and admiration.

I summed up my comments that afternoon, and I’ll leave the same simple thought for you here. “You see, our lows may be lower at times, but our highs are more often, and they are always so much higher. We wouldn’t dream of trading it for anything!”


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.

Carrie Woodcock and daughter, Sami.
Posted by
Director of the Maine Parent Federation and a parent of 10-year-old Sami who has Down syndrome.

Helping Youth Meet Their PROMISE

PROMISE: Promoting the Readiness of Minors in Supplemental Security Income

What is PROMISE?

Promoting the Readiness of Minors in Supplemental Security Income (PROMISE) is a five-year research project that advances employment and postsecondary education outcomes for 14–16 year old youth who receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI). PROMISE began October 1, 2013 and will continue until September 30, 2018. The program is an interagency collaboration of the U.S. Departments of Education, Health and Human Services, Labor, and the Social Security Administration. Under this competitive grant program, state agencies have partnered to develop and implement model demonstration projects (MDPs) that provide coordinated services and supports designed to improve the education and career outcomes of children with disabilities receiving SSI, including services and supports to their families.

2017 represents the fourth year of the projects (the first year was primarily dedicated to recruitment and enrollment). Thanks to the ongoing efforts to support families and youth, we look forward to hearing about bright future outcomes for the thousands of youth and families being served by PROMISE.

Further information is available at the PROMISE TA Center:

PROMISE TA Center logo

 

PROMISE Success Stories

Model Demonstration Project Success Stories

The PROMISE MDPs were created to facilitate a positive impact on long-term employment and educational outcomes by reducing reliance on SSI, providing better outcomes for adults, and improved service delivery by states for youth and families receiving SSI. The six MDPs are comprised of 11 states:

Under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), projects are coordinating with vocational rehabilitation agencies so that youth are receiving pre-employment transition services, to include paid employment. By April 30, 2016, the MDPs recruited a total of 13,444 youth and their families with half of them receiving intervention services targeted around improving outcomes in employment and postsecondary education.

Personal PROMISE Success Stories

Cody—a Youth with Promise

Wisconsin PROMISE

Cody is excelling as a student at Burlington High School and employee at McDonalds. He plays video games, rides bike, and is learning to drive and weld. His goal is to be a welder after college. Cody was born with a brain tumor and has just one hand, but that’s not stopping him.

He’s a youth with Promise, on a journey to achieve his personal, educational, and career goals.

Watch Cody’s story on YouTube.

Xavi’s Story: Youth with Promise

Wisconsin PROMISE

She’s like most #teenagers… she hangs with her cats, dances with her friends, and loves Criminal Minds. She’s also going to have a lung removed. She’s a youth with Wisconsin Promise, on a journey to achieve her personal, educational, and career goals. Xavi shares her dreams, challenges, and the steps she’s taking with Wisconsin Promise to plan for her future.

Watch Xavi’s story on YouTube.

Dorian Shavis—A Firm Foundation

Arkansas PROMISE

As someone who expressed an interest in architecture, one of the Arkansas PROMISE youth participants expressed his desire to work at an architectural firm. Working with the local workforce board, Arkansas PROMISE staff set up an interview with a local architectural firm and secured an internship that resulted in the PROMISE youth and the firm staff learning from one another.

Watch Dorian’s story on YouTube.

More PROMISE Success Stories

You can find many more PROMISE success stories at:


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 Lillian Durán,
 National Center on Improving Literacy

Lillian Durán standing in front of a school

Lillian Durán

Lillian Durán, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in the Department of Special Education and Clinical Sciences at the University of Oregon. Her research is focused on improving instructional and assessment practices with preschool-aged dual language learners (DLLs). Dr. Durán leads National Center on Improving Literacy’s (NCIL) work on creating and translating resources for DLLs, and provides expertise on the topic of recommended practices in assessment and intervention with young DLLs with and without identified disabilities. Prior to Dr. Durán’s work in higher education she worked for 9 years as an early childhood special education teacher. 


ED:  How did you begin your career in early learning and early literacy?

Lillian:  I started my career as an early childhood special education (ECSE) teacher in Prince George’s County, Maryland. I was hired without special education licensure to teach a self-contained special education preschool class that was deemed “cross-categorical,” meaning the children all had disabilities but the type of disability varied by child. Around this same time I enrolled in a master’s program at George Washington University. I eventually became licensed and graduated with a degree in ECSE.

My next job was working with an early intervention home visiting program in rural Minnesota. We worked in home settings with infants and toddlers with identified disabilities, birth to age three, and their families. Many of the families were native Spanish speakers. Through this work, I started to become very interested in young dual language learners (DLLs). I grew up in a multi-lingual house. My mother was German and father Mexican, so I grew up learning and speaking 3 different languages and always saw the value in being multi-lingual.

I was surprised at the number of Spanish speakers in rural Minnesota. Many were agricultural workers and in some of these rural districts 30–50% of the families were Latino. I started helping these rural school districts by conducting Spanish language assessments, which piqued my interest in DLL assessments and literacy. I ended up enrolling in a doctoral program and working with Scott McConnell, at the University of Minnesota, who developed the Individual Growth and Development Indicators (IGDIs) to measure preschool literacy. The focus of my doctoral work was on

  1. assessment and intervention with DLLs whose home language was Spanish and
  2. second language acquisition.

I have been an associate professor at the University of Oregon’s Special Education Department for the past two years and last year had the opportunity to join NCIL.

ED:  What efforts have you and NCIL been involved in to improve the quality of early learning and early literacy?

Lillian: NCIL’s efforts in early learning are emerging. Our first year has really focused on laying the groundwork. We have been busy:

  1. building our repository of existing resources,
  2. developing professional development materials for educators and families around evidence-based instruction, screening, and assessment for students with literacy related disabilities including dyslexia, and
  3. forming partnerships with key stakeholders and audiences.

NCIL has a number of activities planned this October to raise awareness and improve understanding of dyslexia. I was specifically brought onto the NCIL team because of my expertise in screening and progress monitoring, especially for young DLLs. I am also a co-principal investigator for a research grant, funded by ED’s Institute of Education Sciences, focused on developing a Spanish version of the IGDIs for both screening and progress monitoring. This research and expertise will be wrapped into NCIL’s body of work.

In the second year of NCIL, we will focus more intentionally on early learning, particularly screening and assessment tools.  We are forming a partnership with the American Academy of Pediatrics to develop a simple tool that pediatricians can use to identify risk for reading-related disorders. We are excited to begin work with preschools, including building partnerships with existing Head Start and statewide Pre-K programs that are interested in improving early literacy screening, monitoring, and instruction. I have an early childhood background and it is my role on the NCIL team to ensure we are thinking about how to translate our work so it is appropriate for younger children and the various early learning programs they participate in. Working in an elementary school or classroom can be very different than working in an early learning program. There can be so much variability across different early learning programs—the education level and expertise of the teacher, whether or not they implement a specific curriculum, the overall quality of the program, and much more. You really need to understand the program and meet them somewhere in the middle if you want to be successful in helping them improve their instructional quality and contributions to early literacy. Our specific early learning work scope is still in development, but we are hoping to identify local Head Start and Pre-K programs to partner with and, within these programs, to establish regular early literacy screenings. We also hope to teach evidence-based intervention strategies to teachers within the programs so that once children are identified there is actually a system of targeted and systematic instruction in place to meet their identified needs.

ED:  What are some of the challenges you have experienced in this work, and what strategies have you tried to overcome them?

Lillian: One major challenge is helping practitioners and administrators understand the systematic need for universal screening. Universal screening isn’t just about identifying children who may have a developmental delay or disability; it is also about identifying the instructional needs of all children. We need to do a better job getting this message across.

Related to this is figuring out how we train and support teachers to differentiate instruction. Once you do know where the kids are functioning (e.g., in a multi-tiered system of support, once you know which tier level the kids are), what do you do? How do you differentiate instruction based on children’s instructional needs? This is the research-to-practice challenge. Through research we can identify instructional approaches to meet the needs of various children, but translating these practices into real classrooms and early learning programs isn’t always easy. We need to understand the context and build strong partnerships with programs. We need to understand what programs are currently doing to see how the research-based practices can be embedded. For example, do programs have enough staffing to support the implementation of new instructional approaches? Do programs have an existing curriculum that these practices align with?  We need more people that are focused on this challenge—getting evidence-based practices into the hands of people working with children. I believe what’s crucial to this is researchers taking time to roll up their sleeves and get into classrooms, working directly with practitioners. This allows researchers to partner with programs to work through the practical challenges that always come up.

The final challenge I’ll mention is the need to address and improve the overall quality of early learning programs. I worked with migrant Head Start programs in Utah to implement a semi-scripted curriculum focused on early literacy and language. We found that with the right support they were able to easily implement this early literacy curriculum, and then found that it changed teachers’ practice throughout the day (not just when they were implementing the curriculum). The teachers were hungry for guidance and support on how best to help their children. Again, the message here is that researchers need to become more embedded in the classroom, conducting more focused observations of how what they’ve developed could be implemented in different classrooms and programs. A researcher’s work isn’t done after developing a product or intervention; this is just the beginning. The next critical step is figuring out what support is needed for the product or intervention to actually be translated into daily practice on a large enough scale to actually make a difference.

ED:  What suggestions do you have for others interested in supporting literacy development in young DLLs?

Lillian: My first bit of advice is to understand your own attitudes toward DLLs. This can be tough, but thinking from a strengths-based model is much more effective than from a deficit model, where you primarily think of the kids as not knowing English. Bilingualism is an asset and not a deficit. If we attend to children’s home language in addition to English when it comes to assessment and intervention, we will have a better picture to understand a child’s language and literacy development. This provides tremendous information when determining whether there is a language or literacy delay or disability. Additionally, it is important to learn more about bilingual development. What may be considered a concern with regards to monolingual development may actually be typical when children are developing two or more languages. Finally, seek out bilingual resources and hire bilingual staff.  And simply hiring bilingual staff is only the first step—they need support and training in order to implement evidence-based interventions. I’ve been in many preschool programs where there is a lack of attention to what the bilingual staff are doing. They need:

  1. training about language development, assessment, and interventions and
  2. curriculum and supports in place to guide their instructional practices.

Overall, the big frame is prevention. We need to screen and monitor the progress of all young children and ensure the instructional approaches we are using with young DLLs are meaningful and effective. By intervening early, we will hopefully prevent reading problems from developing down the road. Early intervention is a cornerstone in preventing reading difficulties and I hope to make that a key focus of NCIL. A house is only as solid as the foundation.


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.

A Vocational Rehabilitation Success Story

Note: October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month

George "Burt" Petley (left) with co-worker

George “Burt” Petley (left) with co-worker

In recognition of National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM), Georgia Vocational Rehabilitation Agency (GVRA), a State VR agency which receives funding from the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services’ Rehabilitation Services Administration, is pleased to share Burt’s success story.


Vocational Rehabilitation Success Story: George “Burt” Petley

Burt began his path to employment in a sheltered workshop in 2007, where he did packaging and sorting tasks. Burt’s fellow participants and supervisors said he was dependable and with the support of his sister, Christie, Burt had reliable transportation. While Burt sometimes had difficulty with decision-making, repetitive tasks were an area where he excelled.

In March of 2017, Burt and Christie attended a group meeting at the sheltered workshop with GVRA staff, who presented on Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) services. Sherry Harris, from GVRA’s Augusta office, and Janice Cassidy, from the Athens office, explained supported employment and job coaching can be conduits toward competitive integrated employment and greater personal independence. Sherry and Janice explained that, in an inclusive workplace, individuals with disabilities would have the opportunity to earn the same wages as their coworkers and would not necessarily have to sacrifice services they may receive through a Medicaid waiver. Burt also learned about GVRA’s Work Incentive Navigators, who help individuals determine how going to work impacts disability benefits.

George "Burt" Petley

George “Burt” Petley

After hearing about the big picture and the spectrum of VR services available, Burt left the sheltered workshop program where he had spent the past ten years. He applied for VR services in June of 2017, first enrolling in a program where he learned socialization and independent living skills and took classes like American Sign Language, pottery, cooking, woodworking, healthy living, social skills and employability. That experience not only proved to be a valuable training opportunity for Burt, but it also led to a job offer when he was hired as a Woodworking Associate. Burt now works 13.5 hours/week earning minimum wage refurbishing furniture and looks forward to working more than 20 hours/week by the end of the year.

According to Burt’s family, he is content as a woodworker. Janice Cassidy shared that “Working with Burt has been a collaborative effort, but in reality, he is truly the star of this story. It began with his simple desire to do something other than continue to work at a sheltered workshop where he had worked for 10 years. Yes, he was certainly given information, told of resources and received supportive services from those helping him. Ultimately though, the person who took the necessary steps to move forward toward achieving his work goal was Burt. He exemplifies GVRA’s definition of true success. He made independent choices for his life, gathered necessary information, sought out potential resources and acted on choices made to realize the goal he was working toward. We wish Burt continued success in his work.”

For more information about the VR program in Georgia, please visit GVRA’s website.


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.

Chris Pope
Posted by
WIOA Implementation Team Facilitator Rehabilitation Services Administration U.S. Department of Education

A Teacher’s Perspective on Advancing Dyslexic Education

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

Alison Pankowski

Alison Pankowski

Alison Pankowski currently trains teachers in her New Jersey district in the Wilson Reading System and is an International Dyslexia Association (IDA) Certified Dyslexia Therapist. She is the current Vice President of the New Jersey branch of the IDA.  Mrs. Pankowski was a contributing member to the New Jersey Dyslexia Handbook, released in September 2017.


As a dyslexia specialist in my school district, I build the knowledge base of my colleagues regarding early identification, structured literacy intervention and essential accommodations for students with dyslexia.

I explain, often, that:

  • “Yes, you can identify students at risk for dyslexia as early as five years old.”
  • “Yes, teachers should provide instruction in phonemic awareness in second grade to continue to build reading skills.”
  • “No, using audiobooks is not a crutch; it provides access to grade-level text for struggling readers and levels the playing field.”

While it is true that legislative efforts in my home state of New Jersey have helped to bring these types of conversations to the local school level, there is still much work to be done to ensure that our state dyslexia laws, enacted in 2013 and 2014, are implemented effectively.

There are still many persistent misconceptions about dyslexia, and much of the implementation gap exists because professionals cannot act upon what they do not know or understand.

The truth is higher education often does not include coursework on dyslexia in teacher preparation programs, so local education agencies must either figure out how to build capacity or wait until guidance is provided.

But where would this guidance come from?

In New Jersey, I was invited to join a group of individuals tasked with creating dyslexia guidance. This group consisted of practitioners with expert knowledge in the field of dyslexia, including learning disabilities teacher consultants, speech and language pathologists, psychologists, higher education professors, assistive technology experts, parents and N.J. Department of Education representatives.

New Jersey Dyslexia Handbook

New Jersey Dyslexia Handbook

We worked together for more than 19 months to create the “New Jersey Dyslexia Handbook” with the intent to:

  • Build an understanding of dyslexia and related difficulties with written language;
  • Demonstrate how to identify and remediate students with dyslexia and other reading difficulties; and
  • Inform both educators and families in best practices to support students with dyslexia and other reading difficulties.

We met monthly to discuss how to best provide this understanding and specialized knowledge without overwhelming or alienating educators and families.

Our meetings involved thoughtful, often passionate conversations about what we had experienced or had heard from others around the state; both positive and negative, regarding how schools had chosen to implement the laws passed by the state.

Usually these discussions resulted in written revisions to chapters drafted on early screening, intervention, assessment, accommodations and assistive technology. These discussions then led to more discussions and more revisions!

As committee members with experience in the field, we met with educators and families across the state throughout the process to learn more about what guidance they were seeking and to assure them that it would be coming soon. We worked diligently to craft a resource that would provide best practices to meet the needs of their struggling readers.

The N.J. Department of Education released “The New Jersey Dyslexia Handbook: A Guide to Early Literacy Development & Reading Struggles” Sept. 25, 2017—just in time for Dyslexia Awareness Month in October.

My hope is that this handbook will be a giant step forward in closing the gap between the research on dyslexia and the implementation of best practices in the school and classroom.


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.

Alison Pankowski
Posted by
Alison Pankowski is an International Dyslexia Association (IDA) Certified Dyslexia Therapist and is the current Vice President of the New Jersey branch of the IDA.

Things People Say

Note: October is Down Syndrome Awareness Month.

Jessica Wilson and her son, Jasper

Jessica Wilson and her son, Jasper

A guest blog by Jessica Wilson. Jessica and her son, Jasper (aka Jaz, Jazzy, the JazMaster, or Dude!), live in a cozy house of fur with two crazy dogs and two lazy cats. Their favorite activities include singing movie hits, dancing in the kitchen, snuggling and traveling the world together. Jessica is Director of Communication and Dissemination for the Center for Parent Information and Resources (CPIR) and Resources for Access, Independence and Self-Employment (RAISE) projects with the Statewide Parent Advocacy Network (SPAN) in New Jersey.


Number One. “Did you know?”

They never complete the thought, as if just looking at him implies what they’re really asking. I ache to play dumb: Know what? That he would almost never cry as a baby and be a champion sleeper? That he would love to swim but hate to play soccer? That I could love him ‘til it hurts and still get so annoyed by some of his antics? As obnoxious as my brain screams for me to be, I simply answer, “No. After losing the first one, I didn’t want to take any chances with this very wanted baby.”

The mention of my previous sorrow precludes them from saying anything directly about those tests, so I leave it at that. I resist ranting about warped concepts of perfection or the technologies the medical community pushes that are incapable of measuring the value of those born “dappled.” If I launch into my diatribe, their eyes glaze over as they nod in the faux agreement children give their parents when they just want the scolding to stop. I can always tell when they’re thinking, “I would have the test.” I couldn’t guess what they would do if it were positive.

Number Two. “My sister’s/cousin’s/brother-in-law’s/landlord’s daughter/nephew/classmate/neighbor is ‘like him’.”

What, rakishly handsome? Lucky them. A consummate flirt? Better watch out! The self-appointed town mayor, greeting every person or animal we see on the streets? Good luck getting anywhere quickly with such a gregarious kid.

I suppose it’s an attempt to connect, a way to say “he’s okay” because they know someone who knows someone who… But sharing an extra chromosome doesn’t make anyone like someone else any more than two people having green eyes does. Don’t tell me these six-degrees individuals are “like” each other. They aren’t.

Number Three. “He’s so high-functioning.”

Yeah, far more than I am at 3:00 a.m. “MOMMY!” “urgh…?” “WHY ARE YOUR EYES CLOSED?!” “I’m sleeping, baby.” “WHY?!” “unnnhhh…” “READ TO ME!!!!” (seriously?)

Number Four. “Funny, you can’t see it.”

What’s there to see? His almond shaped eyes that look through me as the spark of laughter flickering within them sears my soul? His cute little hands with that long crease across his palms holding mine, petting the cat, learning to write his name, wiping away tears when he’s mad? The orthotics helping reshape his desperately flat feet?

What exactly are you looking for that will legitimize him in your eyes? Maybe I should carry the envelope with the verdict handed down by some anonymous technician. Perhaps the letter from the state when the lab automatically reported his existence to the county health department “for statistical purposes.” What can’t you see? He’s a kid, growing up loved. What else are you looking for?

Number Five. “I’m sorry.”

You should be. You’ll never hear the thoughts he speaks to me with his smiling brown eyes as he tilts his forehead to rest against mine. You’ll never drink in the heat that radiates from his head or taste his soft hair on your lips. You’ll never be awakened (again) at 3:00 a.m. by the hot air from his mouth on your face as he whispers, “Mommy, I want snuggles.” You’ll never know how it feels to celebrate every jump forward in development that other parents take for granted, but when he finally does it, it’s a very, very large molehill.

You should be sorry that you can only see back in time. This is a new era with new opportunities and new ideas about potential and worthiness. I’m only sorry it’s taken this long and that we still have so far to go.

Number Six. “That’s awesome!”

Thanks, Brian—you are the right kind of friend. May everyone with a kid “like mine” know a man like you.

Number Seven. “I don’t know how you do it.”

I’m his mother. Still confused?

Things I Say.

“I’m so proud of you.” “Boy, you’re handsome!” “Why won’t you let me cut your nails?” “TURN THAT DOWN!” “Wanna go bowling?” “Sweetheart, don’t let the dog beg like that.” “Would you please put this stuff away?” “You’re just too good to be true/Can’t take my eyes off of you.” “No, I don’t want to smell your feet.” “I love you, my sweet angel. You’re my heart and soul, my love and my life.” “You know you drive me nuts, right?”

Number One.

“I’ve loved my son since before he was ever born. What else is there to say?”


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.

No Limits in My Life

By Elizabeth Rouse, Central College Class of 2020

Note:
October 12 is World Sight Day and October 15 is White Cane Safety Day / Blind Awareness Day

Elizabeth Rouse

Elizabeth Rouse

Elizabeth Rouse is a 19-year-old sophomore at Central College in Pella, Iowa. She is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in English with the intention of attending law school in the fall of 2020. In her free time, Elizabeth participates in Bridge Club, belongs to the sorority Zeta Upsilon, and volunteers as a YoungLife leader in her local high school community. 


When I was about five-months-old, my daycare provider noticed I was not tracking things with my eyes in a way that was similar to other babies my age. After a visit to my pediatrician that led to a visit to a genetic specialist at the University of Iowa, my parents discovered that I have Leber’s Congenital Amaurosis (LCA), a genetic disease that stopped the rods from forming in my eyes. This recessive genetic disease is not common. About 3,000 people in the country have it. My vision is 20/400 in both eyes, and it is something that cannot be corrected with glasses. The “cure” is genetic replacement therapy. Being legally blind has proven to be a challenge, but my parents never allowed me to use it as an excuse to sit on the sidelines. They pushed me to excel in everything I chose to do, and they helped me and others who supported me to succeed.

In elementary school, my accommodations were simple. Verbalizing by the teacher, brailled calendars, and other classroom items supported my participation in classroom activities, and, of course, I used a white cane in the hallways. I had a paraprofessional, a wonderful woman named Bonnie, who learned braille and went to trainings to best support my needs and those of my teacher. Over the years, my friends and classmates got used to my needs and pretty much got out of my way in the hallway, limiting the use of my cane indoors. This helped me feel much more like the other students. I am very grateful that my school was small enough to allow me to get to know everyone and create such a level of comfort and success.

In middle school, the challenges began to come more frequently as the curriculum got harder and travel became more a part of my daily experience. My paraprofessional continued to support my needs but in a different way. She went to my classes with me to help me learn how to develop specific skills, such as taking notes. Additionally, class materials, such as quizzes, written up by teachers ahead of time, were sent to be brailled by the Iowa Department of the Blind library services. Any materials needing to be brailled that could not be planned ahead of time were transcribed on sight by my paraprofessional.

My textbooks were also available in braille, but these presented a challenge in and of themselves. Because braille takes up a ridiculous amount of space, a normal sized textbook for history or science could be anywhere from 25 to 40 volumes in braille. This made carting my materials from class to class a bit more difficult. The administration in my school allowed me a rolling backpack to lessen the stress on my back. Additionally, I was given a bigger locker than most of the other students to compensate for my larger amount of materials. While I did not want to use my white cane, I found I had to use it to get used to traveling in the middle school as well as let others know of my presence. Eventually, I was able to use it infrequently, as I had done in elementary school.

When I started high school, I was terrified. As I have an older brother, I knew some of the classes I would have to take would be a bit difficult. I am forever grateful to the teachers I had my freshman year as they made my transition to and experience in high school much less stressful. I specifically remember having a biology teacher who went above and beyond to make sure I was included in the learning experience just as much as the other students in my class. The teachers and I learned how to learn together in many ways. Flash drives for exchanging content and assignments became an important tool for us.

Additionally, I was a bit nervous about extracurricular activities. Most of my friends were athletes, but I could not participate in volleyball, basketball, or other fast-paced sports. However, this caused me to seek participation in other activities. Throughout high school, I was an avid member of the choir and theatrical programs in my school. I led my team in a battle of the books club competition, and I was the president of Family, Career and Community Leaders of America. I was super stoked my sophomore year when I decided to become a member of the wrestling cheerleading squad and found much success.

I graduated in 2016 valedictorian of my class and received multiple high-value scholarships to different universities. I chose Central College in Pella, Iowa. As a sophomore, I could not ask for a better place for me to earn my undergraduate degree. I plan to major in English with minors in theatre and religion. My long-term plan is to go to law school.

What I have learned in my life is that the only limits I have are those I put on myself and there is nothing embarrassing about asking for help. My journey so far has helped me understand that achieving greatness is not tied to my gender, race, socioeconomic status, or any accommodation I may have gotten in order for me to have a level playing field. Greatness is achieved because of effort and discipline. Those come from my own desire to be the best at what I choose to do, vision excluded.

Thank you so much for taking the time to read my blog post. If I could teach everyone in the world one thing, I would like to project that just because a person has some limitation that is out of their control does not mean they are less of a person. Given the right tools and supportive people who want to see them succeed, the possibilities are limitless.


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.