New Special Education Director Has Vision For Program

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The woman at the helm of Payson Unified School District's Special Services Department thinks "special education" has an undeserved bad rap.

"In years past in education there was such an aura and a mystique about what went on in the classroom that if (students) were bored or didn't understand, people didn't see that special needs have always been part of the human condition," Barbara Fitzgerald said.

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Directing special services for the school district is Barbara Fitzgerald's third profession. She started out as a cancer researcher then became an executive chef. She now teaches elementary school special education.

Fitzgerald does not learn in the traditional way -- through listening. It was not until college that she learned she needed pictures to connect to what her instructors were teaching, she said.

Her own struggles to learn have given her compassion during her 12 years as a teacher. She focused on reading.

"I strove to have my first-graders reading by December," she said. "Our science curriculum was language- and experience-based.

"Social studies was reading about the people who made history. It was a lot of fun."

She was discovered special education in 1991 and began her master's degree in reading disabilities.

"I have a love for the kids who are difficult," she said.

Fitzgerald was director of curriculum, professional development, special education and technology for Shonto Preparatory School in Page for four years.

Special services or "exceptional" services as Arizona terms it, covers a broad range of needs from severe learning disabilities to giftedness.

At the disability end of the spectrum, teachers and parents sign off on individual education programs, but what is best for an individual student must be tempered against the needs of the entire classroom.

Federally-mandated, benchmark-achievement paperwork is time-consuming. One of Fitzgerald's jobs is to help teachers have less paperwork.

Then teachers may spend more time with a student who can build a science project with his hands but finds reading from the textbook difficult. Or a teacher can spend more time with a student who has a diagnosis of slight autism.

The director's vision after six weeks in the district is to catch up with teacher needs and questions then continue to support them.

"We have children who have dyslexia, visual perception issues, children who need life skills training and we are looking at how we are going to provide those services," she said.

She wants to expand the teaching staff to meet the demands of a growing special services student population.

Another half-time preschool teacher will be added in January, and, Fitzgerald said, the district is looking at adding another behavior specialist and another behavior classroom teacher.

"I want to get more general education teachers on the bandwagon to provide modifications for children in the classroom who will do well if they, for instance, have an auditory problem and get lecture notes rather than having to follow the lecture on the board," Fitzgerald said.

The gifted program is also something she would like to expand.

Fitzgerald admits to hating school when she was a student.

She did not like the structured, strict ways of her teachers.

"In my eighth-grade class the teacher did round-robin reading," she said. "There was a boy in the class who could not read and I used to get literally sick to my stomach when it would almost get to his turn. I would be counting the paragraphs in agony for him and angry at the teacher for putting him in the situation where he would continually embarrass himself."

Now that she has been the adult sitting on the floor with two dozen pairs of ears and eyes following the storybook, she has made her final career move.

Her first career out of college was as a cancer researcher. Then, in a 180-degree move, she became an executive chef. While directing her kitchen at the Bangor Airport Hilton, she was asked to mentor three Job Corps teens who were at risk or had dropped out of high school.

"One of the girls had lots of energy and drive to move forward, but the boys could not read," she said.

Intrigued as to how this could happen, she returned to college in 1986 and was in the classroom two years later.

"Now that I am in education, I love it and I will do it for the rest of my life," Fitzgerald said.

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