Special Education staff recognized in The Virginia Connection July 3, 2019.

(In the photo, from left to right, is Michelle Gonzalez, Melissa White and
Charlene Gray. Jim O'Reilly is in the back.)
(In the photo, from left to right, is Michelle Gonzalez, Melissa White and
Charlene Gray. Jim O’Reilly is in the back.)

An Educational Journey Begins

Jim O’Reilly is ready to continue a life of learning as he begins a year-long journey with the Aspiring Special Education Leaders Academy this August. O’Reilly currently serves as the Compliance Coordinator for the Department of Special Education of the School Board Office. He was selected as one of 20 leaders in the state of Virginia to complete the year-long academy.   ASELA has accepted three employees from Caroline County since the program was created 12 years ago by the Virginia Department of Education. Melissa White, Michelle Gonzalez, and Charlene Gray have each participated in the academy. It has been nearly five years since Caroline was represented in ASELA. Gray described ASELA as “the best training in the state.” The academy offers training from general and special education professionals at both the local and federal level.   Each month, selected members will meet for training in all fields of special education including compliance, instruction, and professionalism. At the end of the year, members will participate in an internship that lasts 40 hours. They will also have the chance to travel to Washington D.C. to see how special education functions on the federal level. The application process is “competitive” and “intense.”   O’Reilly submitted an application in April and received a decision in late May. In order to be considered for ASELA, O’Reilly was required to submit a letter of recommendation from the superintendent as well as written essays.

O’Reilly believes the years of experience he has had in the education system are what allowed him to earn a position in the academy. For 27 years, O’Reilly has worked in education — and he has held nearly every position available. From New York to Louisa County, O’Reilly served as an IP coordinator, department head, and child study chair. Through his experiences, he earned certificates in general education, special education, and administration. “I’m a lifelong learner,” O’Reilly said of his decision to join the academy. He explained that his thirst for knowledge is also what brought him to Caroline County one year ago.   As the behavior coordinator in Caroline, O’Reilly helped with child study, trained teachers, and maintained a database for the county. When the position opened, he jumped on the opportunity to continue his experience in special education. Eventually, he hopes to become a director of special education where he’ll “stay and retire.” Gray explained that the academy is meant to “help leaders across the state of Virginia work towards becoming directors.” For O’Reilly, the academy will therefore be “an opportunity to grow.” He views the next year as a new learning challenge which will help him become the “best possible director.”   Through her own experiences, Gray called ASELA an “awesome opportunity.” She said it offers members the chance to connect with leaders across the state to share resources and teaching practices to improve special education. In particular, Gray said the counties in central Virginia have created a closer bond. The academy has helped the special education system in Caroline County see “tremendous growth.” Gray said the department has shifted towards meeting the family’s needs, which may solve the root problem. “Just like we go to where our students are, we also need to go where our parents and our families are,” Gray said.   O’Reilly described families as being the foundation of the work of the special education department. The department is working on the process of having parents become more involved and understanding of the decisions made in the special education system. Gray and O’Reilly said there has been a conflict between “us and them” when it comes to parents and special education employees. They hope the future will see greater collaboration between teachers and families. Gray said it is important that the department meets the needs of the family as well as the child. “We are a team,” O’Reilly explained. “We’re all on the same team. We all want them to move forward.”   Along with working more closely with families, Gray said the department is putting more focus on mental health. “We are seeing more and more students diagnosed with mental health disorders,” Gray explained. “The special education department is working hard with staff, community agencies, and families to bring awareness in the division to this rising issue.

It’s a development that will improve the educational setting for all children.”   Additionally, O’Reilly has been a part of the creation of a special education manual for the county. He described it as a “living document” that will “centralize information” on special education. A physical book will be available along with a digital version that can be accessed by everyone in the county. O’Reilly said they are hoping to release it at the start of the school year in August.   ASELA has helped sharpen the leadership skills of Caroline’s very own and consequently improved the future of the special education system. “You really do see the rewards in your work environment,” Gray said warmly after seeing growth within Caroline County’s own backyard. She believes special education will continue to improve through ASELA, and Caroline will continue to have “great leaders breed more leaders.” O’Reilly believes that moving forward is the most important part of education. He looks forward to learning new lessons about special education to become a greater director in the future. “You can’t move forward unless you change,” he said. “It always comes down to the base of the pyramid — which [is] the students.”

By: Jade McCartney Campos

This post is, in part, comprised of text and media copied from an article in The Virginia Connection digital newsletter. See this and other articles at https://thevirginiaconnection.com/TheVirginiaConnectionVolume1Issue27.pdf?utm_source=The+Virginia+Connection&utm_campaign=2d1732c3d4-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2019_07_06_01_01&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_1510acbb6e-2d1732c3d4-339831085