Effective July 1, Wilton Public Schools welcomed Andrea Leonardi as the district’s new assistant superintendent for special services, replacing the retiring Ann Paul. GOOD Morning Wilton sat down with Leonardi for her first interview since joining the district after 20 years as Fairfield Schools’ director of special services, to talk about how she plans to approach overseeing such an important portion of the district.

Hers is a balancing act, answering to several community constituencies on areas like curriculum, teacher accountability, enrollment, cost reduction and financial efficiency, and mandates, all the while making sure the priority is how all children in her care receive an appropriate education and intervention services when needed.

GOOD Morning Wilton:  How are you settling into Wilton?

Andrea Leonardi:  I’m settling in beautifully, meeting people, getting to know the district a little bit, on paper mostly at this point because schools are closed. But I am getting to know people and reading a lot about where you’ve been and what’s happening, and getting to know the administrators, the leadership of the buildings, Dr. Smith–Kevin Smith, Chuck Smith–and getting to know people.

GMW:  Wilton and Fairfield are different communities. How are you approaching Wilton–what do you see as the prime areas that need focus as you hit the ground running, and how do you adjust from Fairfield to Wilton?

AL:  Right now I would characterize where I am as, I’m on a listening tour. So my job now is to meet people, to understand the Wilton Public Schools, what your vision is, what the vision for the future is, where there are vulnerabilities, where there are challenges.  So I want to get to know and meet as many of the staff, the students, the parents, the families, the community members as I can in the next two months.

Once school gets started, doing a lot of listening, spending time in classrooms, with parents, with focus groups and groups of people coming in to share with people what they’re proud of, what makes Wilton, Wilton, what the values are here, what’s of value in the community and in the school district and where are the areas that people need my attention.

Certainly I’d like to spend some time in the classrooms. I’m reviewing data, I’m reading IEPs, and 504 plans, to get a sense of where things currently are, in terms of both protocols and processes, and in terms of the relationships between staff members and families, and how those partnerships are going now. So I see the next few months really as spending as much time as I can boots on the ground, in the buildings, with the staff and the families and really listening.

From that, I’ll start to craft the move forward, ideas. Probably by that mid-year point I’ll be able to say, ‘Here are some areas, here’s what I heard out on the ground, here’s what I saw, and here are some first steps of continuous improvement. I want to understand and become part of the vision for what’s next.

GMW:  You have a lot of constituencies and a lot of moving parts, it’s a lot to get a handle on.

AL:  That’s why it’s going to take a bit of time. I’m trying to breathe into it, and keep breathing, and moving forward because I know I have a lot of different constituent groups to listen to and hear from. It being summer, I won’t be able to get the bulk of those done until everyone is back in town. But I’m open, my door is open here, I’m meeting with people as we speak, but I know the bulk of the listening is going to happen in September.

GMW:  I’m sure that being in the special education community for so long, and working in the wider region–let alone your considerations in coming to Wilton–you must have some sort of assessment of what you think Wilton’s strongest points are, and where there are areas for improvement. What’s your higher level take on that at this point?

AL:  There are a couple significant things in the area that my guess is (and from preliminary conversations) the two areas that are going to need attention.

One is the whole area of diagnoses and intervention around children with dyslexia, and making sure that we’re finding those kids as early as humanly possible, so that we can intervene at the first point of difficulty rather than waiting until later on in their elementary career. I’ll be working with both Miller-Driscoll and Cider Mill, making sure that we have really sharp diagnostics, sharp progress monitoring that’s done far more quickly–weekly, regularly–and then responded to when that progress is lack-luster, so that not too much time passes. That’s a piece of the puzzle everywhere, and my guess is it will be a piece of the puzzle here [in Wilton].

The other piece is looking at the whole social, emotional and mental health domain–it’s a big issue regionally and nationally, really looking at what’s happening to our kids so we can teach them to be resilient in the face of struggle, to manage depression and anxiety so they can function and move forward in their lives.

Those are two pieces that my guess is will be part and parcel of the work we do going forward. I know that Wilton is starting an 18-21-year-old program, so I’ll be working with the teams and the families to help make that program viable and make sure we are meeting the needs of our young adults, to help them realize their dreams, beyond the work with us.

GMW:  In Fairfield, you oversaw school climate. You’re coming into a district that has some very vocal critics of what the Board of Education and administrators have done with special education. They’ve pointed to overstaffing, particularly what they say is overstaffing of psychologists in the district. On the other hand, advocates of social and emotional welfare have said this is what this special education population and the wider population need. What do you want to say to those critics, whether specific to the number of psychologists on staff or about criticism of the district in general?

AL:  I think that’s part of the listening–looking at the whole budgetary process, making sure staffing is adequate to the needs and adequate to meet the mission, but also understanding that we are a taxpayer-funded system and we need to make sure that we are able to articulate what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and what those needs are to allow the community to understand and decide if that’s what they value.

Part of my job is to be the voice of special education, to help people understand special education is costly–not providing special education is costlier. My job is to help the elected officials in town and the community itself understand what it is, and then decide whether this is what they value. That’s going to take some time; they need to trust me, I need to be able to show them the data and articulate why we need certain things.

I also need to assess staffing levels; I need to look at people’s schedules, how their time is being spent, certainly we want the bulk of our certified staff’s time spent in service to children. Sometimes the special education processes, that they meet up. We have long periods of time in service to the process, and that doesn’t always equate to service to the children. I want to make sure we are using our time that we take people away from their direct service to children only to do critical work, and that we try to use that time as efficiently as possible, so that we make sure staff are being used in service to children, to make sure the kids’ needs are being met, and that we are helping them build their lives.

GMW:  There’s been recent relief from some of the unfunded state mandates, that relate to taking educators’ time away from students, with the law that was just signed by the governor, which Gail Lavielle, Wilton’s representative, helped make a reality? But there are still other state mandates staying in place, that are always something to be aware of. Any comment on that? 

AL:  Unfunded mandates will be critical in these fiscal times right now, to make sure that we’re not continuing to add pieces of legislation on that create a need for funding. That’s going to be critical, now that the law has passed, as we see how that rolls out and what that actually means in operation, how it is actually applied. We’re getting up to speed on what that actually means, what mandates will be going away, what mandates won’t be going away but may be fitting into a different operation. That’s all part and parcel of the summer work–we figure out what did the legislature do, and what is it going to mean, and how are we going to roll that out to the faculty, to the community, to make sure we’re in compliance with the law, but also make sure we’re still doing the right thing for the kids.

GMW:  Many parents are wondering what your arrival means to their children and the services they are receiving. What do you want these families to know about you? What’s your approach to working with families?

AL:  I believe really strongly in a creative problem solving process. That means getting smart people in a room together and talking, and really communicating about what are the needs, what are the concerns, what are the challenges we’re facing and what can we do to take the first step to forge a path forward.

I want people to know that I’m accessible and approachable, and I may not have all the answers, I do not profess to be the sole expert or the Solomon, so to speak. But I know how to find smart people, and I know how to bring people together to try to talk about real issues and forge a path forward.

So I’d like families to know that first, I do have expertise and ideas, and I like to be a part of the team that tries to solve problems, but I don’t expect that I’m the only answer. And I know that working with groups of people, smart people coming from different perspectives, always results in a better outcome for children.

I hope families will be open to coming in to see me, call me, email me. Typically email communication gives me an introduction to what the concern is, but then I like to talk. Email is not always the best form of communication, but it does get the ball rolling.

I’d also like them to know that reasonable people in this work, with all the best interests at heart, can still disagree sometimes, but that disagreement doesn’t have to be disagreeable. We can come together as adults who really care about a child and think through how to forge a path forward, because we work together for 18 years–from pre-school on through, we’re working together–so it’s important to keep those doors of communication open. To know that human beings sometimes make mistakes, they make the wrong call sometimes, all for the right reasons. And we want to repair any relationships where there are hurt feelings; we also want to prevent hurt feelings in the future. And we want to try to be open to a real and meaningful dialogue about kids.

GMW:  Sometimes, families approach the process right off the bat accompanied by a lawyer and an advocate. I don’t know if it has always been that way, if it’s a growing trend. Everything is case by case, so you have to answer in generalities, but why do you think that happens?

AL:  The process, as outlined in the federal law, is fearsome. Parenting a child with special needs is difficult in many ways, but having to participate in the process that has protocols and legalities to it makes more difficult. It’s not just a parent conference, it’s an IEP and it has protocols, and I’m signing legal documents.

To me a parent who brings an advocate or lawyer to a table, sometimes it is because they feel they’ve been wronged, but the parent who opens the relationship that way tells me that they’re fearful, they want to make sure they’re doing the right thing, and they have good counsel, and its okay–it’s perfectly ok. Not only is it legal to do, but we’re open to that.

Our task is to try to be collaborative, to try to listen to the concerns and see if we can find a way to move things forward, knowing and doing the best thing possible that the science says–but this is sometimes an art, too. Because for one child X might work and for another Y might work, and sometimes you have to try X and flavor it with Y. Special education is very complex; if there were easy answers, there’s no reason people wouldn’t do them. It’s not always easy, to understand a child, and then how a disability manifests itself within that child. It’s very complex work.

GMW:  How about the teachers, what do you want them to know?

AL:  The same thing–that I am approachable, that my job is to make sure that they can do their job well. So I need to make sure that the resources are available, that that continuous improvement mindset is a part of who we are, that we’re always looking at, Where are we now and what’s next? How are we going to continuously improve our practice, understand what the research says, and understand how that gets operationalized on the ground?

I want teachers and certified staff to be at the top of their game. I want them to know where to get answers, I want them to know how to learn, because it’s not always a simple task. Just when you think you know everything in special ed, a child with a unique need comes into your life, and you’ve got to learn again, and I want them to know that’s ok. And sometimes when you’re in that learning phase, things feel uncomfortable, and sometimes you have to let it be a little uncomfortable as you learn and progress to something new.

I want them to know they have my support to innovate and take risks and learn new things and be a little uncomfortable, and that they have my support to do that. If they don’t know what to do next, it’s okay to waive the flag and say, ‘I’m not sure what to do next,’ so that we can bring resources to bear to forge a path to the next step. And to know it’s okay to do that quickly, and not wait a long time feeling uncomfortable that they’re not making the progress they’d like to make.

I want the teachers to know I’m there to support them in that learning.

GMW:  I’m sure that’s important for them to hear. No doubt you’ve heard what happened this past year–issues raised about teachers feeling frustrated, about a lack of communication both top-down and bottom-up; and the anonymous way those feelings were expressed.

AL:  It’s new for everybody. Ann Paul did an extraordinary job for many years, and I think everyone is a little uncomfortable. Who is this one and what is she going to do? Right?

I don’t believe in change for change’s sake. Change comes when you need to continuously improve and adjust your practice, and the data will tell us that–not only student achievement data, but where the conflicts are happening and what are they about? Where are those vulnerabilities that we need to shore up? Where are teachers feeling vulnerable themselves?

The teachers, they know, and they’ll hopefully tell me, so that we can start to think about the next logical steps and how can we make sure that everyone is at the top of their game, and feels like they are at the top of their game. Building their confidence, and helping them see how to forge solid, trusting relationships with families–that’s critical.

GMW:  One big buzzwords during budget time is ‘outplacement.’ The district points to cost-savings when they lower the number of outplacements. Conversely, families ask, ‘How can the district provide the same kind of specialized, expert instruction, with teachers in a specialized school 8-hours-a-day, with peers who learn in the same way? How do you, in the middle, balance cost savings with serving students’ needs?

AL:  Special education is a continuum of services, it’s not a one-size-fits-all model. When you start to see patterns in the kinds of instruction, that’s when you start to think about, How do I programmatically build the capacity in-district? When you have a number of students who have a similar need, it will always be more cost-effective to build programmatically in-district.

It’s not necessarily providing the student that unique instruction that drives very high tuitions in those private placements, but the overhead, the building, the transportation, the things you’re paying for that really aren’t necessarily direct service to that student.

My job is to understand who are the kids who are being outplaced, where are they going, what are the services they’re being provided. One of the things on my listening tour is going to be to go visit, and see who are the kids, talk to the families of the kids in outplacements, to find out what were the driving factors, what were the things that resulted in those decisions being made.

I’m not anti-outplacement. I do like to understand what’s driving those decisions, and make sure they are the right placements for as long as the child might need them, but also know when it’s time to bring students back. Because students will lose, especially in a district like Wilton that provides such a comprehensive program. Outplacement often limits some of that participation in other areas of the curriculum that are enriching and help build a life. And find passion. It’s a balancing act. Sometimes it’s the right way to go and you have to make that decision, and sometimes it’s not and you have to make that decision. Sometimes you don’t agree, so you have to make a resolution that works for everyone and move forward.

GMW:  Why do you think some districts are perceived as being ‘generous’ and others as ‘not generous?’ Every district has a sort of reputation.

AL:  That’s a really tough question. Sometimes it’s about who’s talking. Who are the people defining or characterizing what happens?

If you look at the data from a birds-eye view, the data doesn’t bear that out. For example, I have always gotten questions, particularly at budget time–and I anticipate I will here too–where people say, “Everyone’s moving to town for special education.”

In reality, society is more mobile, and proportionally that really doesn’t bear out in the data–but it feels that way. When you look at the data, the prevalence rates are not wildly different across the whole state. And the proportional costs of special education are not wildly different across the state. The smaller the district, the more you’ll see the impact of one student who moves in with very significant needs; it shows up at budget time in a way that doesn’t as much in a larger district. Wilton is about a third the size of Fairfield, so the impact of one student moving in, it’s not felt so much in Fairfield, but it’s felt here.

Generally speaking, good people with good intentions doing really good work for kids who really need it, kids who really need smart people focused on them–it couldn’t be more important work, it just couldn’t. I don’t know that there’s any more important work out there, frankly.

GMW:  Let’s talk a little bit about the District Management Consultants (DMC) report. What will be your approach to incorporating some of those findings. What are you thinking about that?

AL:  I’ve read the DMC report, I’ve read its recommendations. I think we have work to do in the area of early identification in reading, early intervention in reading, progress monitoring those interventions. That’ll be a big focus in that pre-K–5th grade timeframe. So at Miller-Driscoll and Cider Mill, the bulk of our beginning work is going to be looking at what are our practices, what are our protocols, how do the general education teachers help drive the understanding of who are our struggling readers, writers, and how do we make sure we intervene early.

That’s a big piece, and I know it was a focus that the scientific research-based interventions (SRBI) really focused energy on last year. So I’d like to see what those protocols look like.

One of the areas we’ll need to take a look at is when do the bulk of referrals get made and by whom? I believe the bulk of referrals should be made by certified staff, teachers, K-12–they know who these kids are and they should be making those referrals and bringing parents along. I want to make sure that’s where it’s happening.

GMW:  There was a sharp uptick in the numbers of referrals for grades 9-12…how does that get explained, that referrals are happening so late?

AL:  There are three times when you are going to see a sharp uptick in referrals to special education.

One is at that 2nd-3rd grade. I’d like to see that bumped down to K-1, early identification, so that’s an area to look at. Balancing development with certain things they have got to know, that they’ve got to be able to do at certain times. That’s a timeframe to really take a look at.

The other pieces are the transition between 5th and 6th grade, that’s a big time for the onset of some more social and emotional pieces. Every student I’ve known who has struggled in the social and emotional domain, when you talk to them and ask, When did it begin? It began in 7th grade. Often, the middle school with its team model supports that. Then at the 8th and 9th grade transition they fall off a cliff. So I want to make sure that we’re understanding that not only is the job at the middle level to support kids, we have to teach them some things. It’s not just holding them up, because what happens when you pull the hand away? We want to make sure we are teaching students good skills to cope with frustration, to negotiate socially, to engage in finding out where their strengths are and how to capitalize on those. That’s going to be important work for the adolescent.

And certainly moving into high school–we want to make sure we help the kids build their confidence to know there is a path forward for them beyond high school. Our kids who start to struggle in 10th-11th grade, often what’s happening is they are starting to see that their high school career is coming to a close, and they don’t see a path forward, they don’t see what’s next for themselves. We need to help kids see that there is a path forward, and that path forward is very diverse–it’s not one straight line, and their generation is going to move around more. Statistically if you read up on what’s next, they are going to have 6-8 careers. They are not going to be people who stay in the same domain. So we need to help build kids who aren’t change-averse, who see the world as hopeful and optimistic, and that they have the skill-set behind them to both learn something new, to switch it all up and to take with them that sense of optimism, hope and confidence.

GMW:  You’re describing things that are impactful to the school’s broad population, not just the special needs segment–this work impacts the entire population of the school.

AL:  If you see this community as a tapestry, then children with special needs are threads in the tapestry of us all–each child is a thread in that tapestry. They are each different colors, different textures, different materials, but they are each a thread in the tapestry.

And the vision for each of them is the same:  to be children who, when they leave the Wilton Public Schools, have opportunities for a life of independence, choice, dignity and community participation; who see themselves as effective people who can have meaningful relationships and meaningful work. I don’t see special education as something separate from that.

GMW:  Is there a way to know if the district has done a good job at getting that message out, both to the wider adult community as well as the student community? Is that part of something that you address?

AL:  Absolutely. In terms of my understanding of Wilton, it’s too soon to tell. I haven’t seen enough yet to be able to make decisions about what’s next there.

But certainly, that is who I am, it’s why I do this work. If I were to see that students with special needs are separate–and I don’t just mean physically, but emotionally and as part and parcel of the fabric of the building–then that is something that I would see as a need.

At my very core, it’s why I do this work, it’s the people in my life who I have known who spurred this on for me, it’s why I became a special educator. Even if someone offered me a superintendency, no–special ed is my place.

But special ed needs to be at the table for everybody; special ed is part and parcel of the whole, and if you’re not paying attention to it, as part and parcel of the whole, or trying to make something kind of separate but equal, you are missing a real opportunity for all kids. Students with disabilities benefit from being a part and parcel of a larger community, and students without disabilities benefit from seeing a wider range of humanity, understanding that the world isn’t always a straight line,  and watching and understanding what resiliency looks like. If you’ve ever seen a person with a disability overcome–I think it’s important to see that every day. Every day it’s important to see that we are all a little bit different, we all have strengths and weaknesses, but we all can contribute great things to the world.

Teens can really be leaders in making sure that ‘all’ means all, that ‘all’ means each and every student. When you think about the mission statement, what does ‘all children’ look like and how do we operationalize that in every decision that we make. In the classroom, in the hallway, how is that operationalized and recognized?

One of the things I’ll be looking at is, What are our recognition systems? Are children with disabilities visible in our recognition systems? What are the things that the Wilton public school celebrates, and are there children with disabilities recognized in those systems? And if not, why not?

All of those things are important to make sure are part of the conversation. That means I need to not only be seated at the table working with individual kids, I need to be seated at the decision making tables with Kevin [Smith], and with [Chuck] Smith, and make sure that that perspective is a part and parcel of the conversation with PTAs and the Parents’ Advisory Board and making sure with elected officials in the community.

Because often it’s not with mal-intent, it’s just from a different kind of thinking. It’s a sin of omission, and so thinking about how we can make sure that that perspective is opened up a little, that people see through a different lens–that’s the advocacy part of my job. I consider myself a child advocate for people with disabilities, and so being able to be the public face of that and ask the sharp question once in a while about, ‘Have you thought about how children with disabilities figure in to your thinking? Do they? If they don’t, why not? They represent about 13.5% of the population, that’s a population too big to completely ignore.

Looking at things like the athletic program, and thinking about working with the athletic director and saying, ‘How do children with disabilities figure in here? If they don’t, why don’t they?’ Sometimes it’s just a pattern of thinking:  How can we make these opportunities open to a broader range of students, and maintain our competitive edge? How do we open up those doors, and think about meaningful paths of participation for everybody?” Those are the Mt. Everest things, but they are worth climbing. It’s worthy of the climb.

GMW:  One meaningful path is Wilton’s pre-K program. This year, Wilton’s preschool program changes to Miller-Driscoll Early Learning Center. Thoughts?

AL:  It’s an extraordinary opportunity. It’s not infrequent that preschool special education programs are separate, so having the opportunity to have a pre-K–to–school [pathway] is extraordinary. I’m looking forward to partnering with the staff and faculty there to make sure that bridge is built. For parents of children with disabilities, having a pre-K–2 experience is a real opportunity, because that’s a stress point at a lot of places. For a parent of a child with a disability, that transition is extraordinarily difficult, so it’s going to give an opportunity for continuity and growth from age 3, all the way to the end of 2nd grade. The potential is there to create something extraordinary.

GMW:  Do other communities also have a peer model program?

AL:  Yes. In Fairfield, we did bring typically developing students to our special education pre-school model, and have done so for many years. It’s a real opportunity to start from age 3, to create that sense of tapestry we talked about.

GMW:  It surprises me how few people investigate it as an opportunity, the peer model.

AL:  I think part of that is how its branded. Saying we want ‘peer models’ sounds almost like we’re putting 3-year-olds to work. We want to create a pre-school that is inclusive, and meaningful learning for all kids. That branding helps parents understand that you’re not giving us your child for a couple hours so that he can help others, you are coming to a public preschool program where he is going to be challenged and learn in a broader range of students, like he will all the way through. Those are the critical factors, branding and helping people understand what the “it” is and seeing it as a value added part of the community.

GMW:  Anything else you’d like to add?

AL:  I couldn’t be more excited. I was in Fairfield for 21 years, and I really couldn’t be more excited to learn more about Wilton, to learn more about the vision that parents have for their children here and the community has for its children. And to try to be a value-added member of that team.

I look forward to really sitting down and listening and hearing from people. I really appreciate you getting that word out, that I am in my office and available. My number is 203.762.3381. As the school year begins I’ll be having parent focus groups, I’ll be having parent coffees at all the buildings town hall-style where parents can ask me questions. I want to hear from them about their children, about the overall picture of the community, and what they value and what they’re looking for. I am in the game to learn from them, and I hope I bring something to the table that will help move Wilton forward.