Celebrating Success With Our First Community Hero: Diane Vigrass – Part II

Hello again friends. We’re back with our second of three posts with the inspiring Diane Vigrass, our first Western New York Community Hero. In the last post, Diane, who is currently a Special Education Improvement Specialist at Niagara-Orleans BOCES, shared some wisdom about working with parents inside the special education system. In this post, we’re going to focus on her work with educators, particularly related to the difficulty in consistently applying critical thinking in our work and challenging our personal biases.

Jeanette: We were talking before about working with parents within the special education system. What about teachers?

Diane: Teachers must make sure those IEPs (Individual Education Plans) are showing benefit so that one year does not look like the next year. For example, I worked with a district that had a high school student still receiving special transportation on the IEP that was originated in the third grade. They just kept putting it in and putting it in. There was no indication that is was needed, so I asked, “Why does he still need this in the 9th grade?” Luckily, I got the right teacher at the right time. She was as flabbergasted as I was. She went all the way back to Transportation and had them look it up. It turns out this student had problems on the bus in that year, and since he was in special education, they got him his own transportation. And then no one ever reevaluated the need in the next six years!

Our goal in the ninth grade for this student was for more peer interaction, which he wasn’t going to get on the mini-bus. So there needs to be movement to get a child as close to a situation where there is general education or with peers as much as possible. I think it’s easy for teachers and administrators to say in relation to IEPs, “He had it last year, we’ll give it to him again this year.”

Jeanette: We see a lot of the same thing when we come into a school as consultants. Lots of educators “get” the need for critical thinking at an individual, cognitive level, but it seems to break down when the system tries to implement it. It is easier to maintain that homeostasis…. “This is how we do it in our school or our district” instead of pausing to consider,“What does this particular child in this particular family in this particular school need?”

Diane: And that’s why we have to have a plan. To get a child out of the box we’ve put him or her in.

Jeanette: Let’s talk about more of those boxes we put kids in, whether its related to their racial identities, identities around disabilities or differences, or gender. How do we counter that?

Diane: I think it’s the modeling.Teachers have to model in school. Which is difficult because you have to go past your beliefs.You must really know yourself and where your glitches are,and then work through that. It’s not actually a bias in race that I see most often, it’s a bias in class, in background…poverty really. I hear, “This student can’t do this because…,” or “This student can’t come to school because…” That’s when I start the line of questioning to get to the root of what the teacher perceives vs. what the reality is.In the Catholic school system, I used “What Would Jesus Do,” falling back on our faith. In the public system, I rely on a line of questioning that I have gotten better at implementing. Had I had that kind of background, that kind of comfort, back early in my career, I think I could have done more with providing effective professional development around bullying and diversity.

Jeanette: So many people that come into social justice work get burned out after the first few years. But you’ve made compassion your work for 30 years now. What keeps you going?

Diane: Whenever you get the tiniest success, you celebrate it. We’ve been working on writing IEPs for three years in the district and as soon as there was one teacher who began writing meaningful IEPs, I toasted her  because you’ve got to celebrate each small step. And I think that’s true for students with disabilities too. When you see somebody has finally reached a goal, or some other kind of success, you celebrate it. You mention it them so they can celebrate it too.

I think it’s the only way you go forward….from one success to the next success. You have to expect the best. You can’t just wait for it to happen. You have to have an attitude that there will be success. You look for it and you celebrate it.

Celebrating Success with our First Community Hero: Diane Vigrass – Part I

The Wonderful Diane

We’re pleased to profile Prevention Educators’ first Community Hero, Diane Vigrass. Diane is an educator with over 30 years of experience who has worked in several high-profile positions in our community. We had the pleasure of working with her originally when she was the Superintendent for the Diocese of Buffalo Catholic school system. We continued our partnership when she was the Associate Director at the Model Transitions Program at the Center for Rehabilitation Synergy at the University at Buffalo. Currently, she is the Special Education School Improvement Specialist for Niagara-Olean BOCES. Wherever and for whomever she has worked with in our community, Diane has kept social justice at the forefront of her work. Whether pressing her principals to proactively address bias-based bullying in the Catholic schools, providing training on culturally competent services for individuals with disabilities, or coaching teachers to make their IEPs more child-centered, Diane has taken a leadership role in the organizations she’s worked with.  She completed her BS in Education from Medaille College and her MS in Learning and Behavioral Disorders from Buffalo State College.

Jeanette sat down with Diane recently to discuss her work, its relation to social justice, how she motivates those she works with as a supervisor, trainer, or coach. They also discussed the importance of bridging the gap between families and educators.  In this three-part series, we’ll highlight some of the main points in that conversation related to working with parents, teachers and across systems. This first post will focus on working with parents. We think you’ll agree that Diane is a true Community Hero!

Jeanette: What has it been for you to keep a social justice focus at the front of your work?

Diane: Because I work with students with disabilities, it’s been a natural fit. I’m on a campaign to make sure that people understand that special education is not a lifelong sentence. It doesn’t have to be a lifelong sentence. And that’s what the crux of a lot of my work is in the school districts now. We need to wean the child away from special ed wherever possible by teaching strategies to compensate for the disability, making experts and supports available as needed and then getting out of the way so that youth can apply those strategies, whether that’s in post-secondary education or in their job.

Jeanette: Well, what would you want to say more specifically about that?

Diane: Let’s start with parents…There’s a lot that happens at the IEP (Individualized Education Plan) meetings (for children with disabilities). There is so much that can make the parent nervous because of how it’s presented, the format, all the people, the body language of those “experts” at the meeting. But parents need to be very active in their child’s education, especially if they are parenting a student with disabilities.

Jeanette: I think a lot of parents don’t understand what their role is at an IEP meeting and what the rights of the family and child are, even though they get the packet and the letters that describe the procedures. Being a parent of a child with special needs, I’ve heard other parents say, “I didn’t know I could ask for, e.g., speech.” Or “I know they have this parent support person there at the IEP but I didn’t know who she was because they had 10 other people there and I was overwhelmed.”

Diane: I wish I could tell parents to be in control. To be comfortable being active in their child’s life…The parents are the first teacher, the parents are the people that know them (the students) inside out and upside down. So when a child is having a problem, the parent’s input should be considered very valuable by the educators.  On the other hand, the educators have the training about learning and instruction.  When parents and educators listen to each other, an effective plan will develop through mutual understanding  about what’s best for that child.

Jeanette: When we go out to train a school community, we’ll often hear the parents talk about their issues with the teachers and the teachers talk about their issues with the parents.  It’s often done in an “us vs. them” mentality.  How do you think we keep the children’s needs front and center?

Diane: First, I think it’s about creating those teachable moments. It doesn’t start in high school. It’s way back in the elementary years or even before, at ages 3-4. It’s important to teach children how to ask for information they need, especially in a group. And especially for the child with a disability. Self-advocacy is so important in post-secondary life. We (parents and teachers together) have to make sure students with disabilities are ready for the world: academically and socially.  Teachers can’t do it alone. We’ve only got 6 hours. Parents can’t do it alone.  So we’ve got to create a bond. It’s very disappointing that our profession makes parents feel like they are not an important part of a child’s life in education. Schools are a part of communities, and educators can’t exclude the parents in their efforts to help children grow to be members of the community.

Jeanette: How can we be better educators as a system in a community then?

Diane (without missing a beat!): Service learning projects. I really believe in service learning projects. As an educator, if you can bring the family together and do a service learning project from start to finish, I think we can make head way in creating a unit of family and school. And also do some very important work in our community. Maybe grow that volunteerism effort and the ability to understand people who are disadvantaged, or disabled, or in the minority. I keep thinking of Habitat for Humanity and all the varied educational experiences a child could accumulate and apply to his or her own life…now and in the future.

Jeanette: When you started working with children in special education, did your own schooling prepare in relation to “doing” social justice work?

Diane: Absolutely not.  I think whatever you learn about social justice it’s nurtured through your parents and your upbringing. An outside individual  can open the eyes of children and adults to social justice. And you can keep showing them or telling them about good practices, but they may actually live a different story.  Parents can give children the right foundation, the right messages to support their growth.

Stay tuned for our next post, where we’ll talk with Diane about her work with teachers and administrators, including how to push past your comfort zone and into change and the importance of celebrating every success.