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  • All for the Betterment of the Schools

    To say that chief education officers wear many hats is most certainly a cliché and a gross understatement. While we may all have similar job descriptions, most often referencing the New Jersey State Standards for School Leaders, the realities of our actual daily job tasks are as varied as the communities we serve. In actuality, our positions as educational leaders are dictated by the size, demographics and individual needs of our districts. Best practice in human resource management suggests that the major responsibility of the human resource function is maximizing the human resources of the school system. The growing emphasis on maximizing a school’s human resources emanates from the realization that organizations progress to the extent that they are able to develop the talent and competency of the existing personnel in the best interests of the total staff and student population. When hiring to fill a teaching vacancy, school administrators seek candidates with multiple certifications and a wide variety of instructional skills in order to build a staff that offers flexibility when making future teaching assignments. Similarly, developing that same depth and breadth of experience and skills can only serve to make a chief education officer that much more valuable to a district, no matter what the size.
    After working for the New Jersey Department of Education in the Division of Special Education, I found that it was that experience, along my Master’s Degree in Special Education that made me most marketable as an applicant for my first Superintendent’s position in a small district. Twenty five years and four small districts later, it is still that knowledge of the nature and needs of special student populations that continues to be of greatest benefit, not only to my district, but to me as a successful school leader as well. The position of Chief School Administrator by definition includes the duties of both Superintendent and Principal. However, it often includes serving as Supervisor of Child Study or Director of Special Services. Obviously, in order to successfully serve in this capacity, one must have more than just a rudimentary understanding of special education issues. With the increasing numbers of special needs students receiving services in general education classrooms, just as the general education teacher is challenged to meet the class’ diverse needs, so must the administrator be prepared to support and evaluate instructional practice. In order to do so effectively, the administrator must be knowledgeable regarding special education practice, instructional differentiation and related legal issues.  

    While most graduate programs in educational leadership require at least one course in special education, most classes are offered as electives rather than core requirements. I have long believed that greater exposure to special education topics including legal issues, inclusive programming, and assistive technology should be required in all graduate level school leadership programs. I further commend New Jersey’s inclusion of special education issues in the required School Leader Training in School Law, Ethics and Governance.  Since the enactment of Public Law 94-192, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act,  in 1975, court cases have continued to clarify and redefine the delivery of services to special needs students. It is imperative that school leaders are current when it comes to changes in IDEA and New Jersey’s Chapter 14 of the Administrative Code, which is currently under review for amendment. As educational leaders, we are ultimately responsible for the instructional program of all students, whether they are gifted, twice exceptional, special needs or general education. To do this successfully, we must give as much attention to developing and maintaining special education skills as we do to finance, facilities, curriculum and supervision.

    I strongly support NJASA’s new partnership with the New Jersey Association of Pupil Services Administrators (NJAPSA) in our efforts to bring to our membership the best in professional development opportunities via our first joint Annual Spring Conference. This partnership acknowledges our need as educational leaders to stay abreast of the ever changing field of special education. Workshops that address hot topics in New Jersey special education, shared services to strengthen special education and new federal guidelines on students with disabilities and extracurricular activities should be of interest for all instructional leaders, not just those specifically supervising special education programs. During my Doctoral work in Educational Leadership at Lehigh University, I was fortunate to have three classes taught by Dr. Perry Zirkel, our Spring Conference keynote speaker. His perspective on school law and the legal issues in special education was invaluable in my personal professional growth. Even with a strong background in special education, I readily recognize the need to remain current, especially in consideration of the continuing court decisions affecting special needs students and their applicability to education in general. I look forward to what I am sure will be a most successful Spring Conference, and to the continuing development of NJASA’s relationship with NJAPSA. We will all benefit by sharing resources and knowledge, all for the betterment of the schools that we lead.