November 05, 2017 at 5:23 pm | By HILARY MATHESON Daily Inter Lake
Sara Cole, 37, is growing a tree of student and family photographs on a wall of her Kalispell Public Schools Central Administration Office.
Cole is in her first year as the district’s special education director. She joins the district from her previous position as special education supervisor for a Shaker Heights City Schools in Ohio.
Her oldest daughter, Hanna, a freshman majoring in art education at the University of Montana, painted the tree. Her family also includes Sasha, a Kalispell Middle School sixth-grader, and Daniel, an Elrod Elementary third-grader. She moved to Montana to be closer to her mother who lives near Missoula, but also because of the beautiful location.
“I love, love the outdoors,” Cole said.
Scattered among the painted branches like leaves are photos of smiling students and families Cole has served during her career. The vision of the art project was for it to serve as a reminder “so that people who walk in here remember this is why we’re here,” she said.
Special education can be tough and tiresome — but deeply fulfilling — work for people like Cole who have a variety of responsibilities. First and foremost her responsibility is being an advocate for students, Cole said. This means partnering with a team of school staff and parents in developing Individual Education Plans for each special education student.
“Touching a child’s life — our neediest kids, or most diverse learners — to have their needs met, it’s hard to put into words. It’s just really fulfilling,” Cole said, noting that special education students are also some of the most resilient and inspiring people she’s met.
A creative approach and determination is often needed by team members in finding ways to help students with disabilities unleash their potential.
Cole said a student she served in her second year of teaching was an elementary-aged girl named Sarah who had cerebral palsy, was unable to communicate and only had muscular ability in her right foot. A team that included Cole, a speech language pathologist and the girl’s parents researched and reached out to a wheelchair company to come up with the right combination of assistive technology.
“We were able to adapt her wheelchair by creating a switch by her right foot [linked] to a computer that generated language and speech,” Cole said. “She went from being unable to communicate basic needs and wants, to a child who now operates her own wheelchair and communicates with people.”
Cole said she shares the girl’s story because the effort wouldn’t have been possible without teamwork; however, disabilities aren’t always visible or even physical, but may be cognitive or behavioral.
“You can’t see it, but you have to be just as empathetic and understanding and willing to help kids on the autism spectrum, kids who have ADHD, kids who have social-emotional challenges,” Cole said.
“I think parents oftentimes feel, ‘man, the world just doesn’t understand my kid. They understand the Sarahs of the world but they don’t understand why my kid is impulsive, or why my kid can’t sit still,’” she said, noting that there needs to be a cultural shift in “really being an advocate for all kids with disabilities.”
COLE STARTED her career as a special education teacher after receiving an undergraduate degree in history and special education at the University of Colorado — Colorado Springs.
“There was a requirement that you had a core subject area as a major in conjunction with special ed,” Cole said. “In hindsight looking back, I wish more universities pushed that because while we are experts as special ed folks in differentiation and meeting individual student needs — the least restrictive place for us to provide services is inside the regular education setting, so for us to have some content knowledge can be really powerful.”
As differentiated learning for all students becomes the norm in education, it’s critical to maintain legal protections for students with disabilities, according to Cole.
“There’s always going to be protections for students with disabilities as there should be. There’s always going to be a continuum of services and support, but I think what folks have recognized with systems like RTI [Response to Intervention] and a multi-tiered system of supports is there should be a universal level of differentiation for all kids and if we’re doing that all well, we won’t misidentify students as having disabilities who may just need something different.”
Today, most students with disabilities are staying in the regular classroom as opposed to being pulled out into a special education classroom, Cole said.
“If they are getting pulled out of the classroom it’s to supplement their core instruction not supplant it, which is pretty amazing,” Cole said. “We know if there’s a learning gap. By just simply replacing regular instruction with special ed instruction we may not close that gap.”
Cole said her short-term goals are to build relationships with students, families and staff, get into as many classrooms as possible, assess district needs, learn Montana’s school budget system while working within those financial constraints.
“My charge is to really make sure that, yes, all of our students’ IEPs are not only in compliance, but that they’re meaningful. That our students with disabilities are really not only having access to an appropriate education, but that they’re making gains, they’re making progress academically and socially and emotionally,” Cole said.