Building an Innovative Community for Special Education Team Leaders

Home E CES Stories E Building an Innovative Community for Special Education Team Leaders
Article Author: Martha Maloney
Publication Name: Collaborative for Educational Services
Article Date: May 13, 2024
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CES Curriculum and Instructional Specialist in Special Education Laurel Peltier has been part of the team leading the statewide Special Education Team Leader Institute (SETLI) in Massachusetts since 2016, funded by the MA Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE). CES had long led consulting and professional development work with special education directors, teams, and professionals in local districts and across the state. The Special Education Team Leader Institute model designed for Massachusetts and Connecticut worked to challenge current practices and expectations by enhancing the leadership skills of the team leader in areas including facilitating the development of the student’s vision; engaging all stakeholders actively in team decisions; building the capacity of all team members to participate in the team process; and using data to inform team decisions and support claims made about student eligibility and progress. 

The first year of SETLI was led by Laurel Peltier and Sharon Jones. It piloted a model that provided a one year course with a cohort of 30 team leaders from across the state.  The pilot prioritized the development of relationships among team leaders across districts as well as technical assistance and support, and fostered participants’ ability to lead Individualized Education Plan (IEP) teams in the collaborative development of educational plans that reflect the individual needs of students. Participants were inspired by their work in the program, and by the creation of a peer-to-peer community that was and is a core and innovative aspect of this work that continues to build team leader confidence and skills over time. 

“This has been an incredible experience,” said Marianne Lockwood, a teacher with the Northampton Public Schools, “We’ve created a whole network and we talk all the time about practice. It has lit a fire in terms of what I can do in my own school.”

In 2019, the Collaborative for Educational Services (CES)  also began working in partnership with the CT State Education Resource Center (SERC), the Regional Education Service Centers (RESCs),  and the Connecticut State Department of Education – (SDE) to develop, design, and implement the Planning and Placement Team Leadership Institute (PPTLI), for special education team leaders. CT was particularly interested in applying the Massachusetts model in terms of the way educators were engaged in interactive learning, collaboration, and the development of a job-alike community of practice across the state. Connecticut also developed a Training of Trainers group which was facilitated by CES for 2 years to ensure that the initiative would be sustainable by CT-based leaders over time.

The work continues forward in both states. While CES no longer actively leads the ongoing Institutes in CT, Laurel continues to consult with the Training of Trainers group that leads the Connecticut leadership institute and with the state as they expand to a principal leadership in special education PPTLI  model next year. The Massachusetts Special Education Team Leader Institute is continuing for the 9th year in 2024-25, and across the two states over 490 professionals have successfully been trained and coached to date. As resources, tools and strategies are  shared and questions of practice offered to both new members and those from previous cohorts, this program has established an expanding network of professionals who are leading team meetings and supporting one another to strengthen collaboration and compliance throughout the IEP development process. 

Over the years, CES has built strong expertise and capacity for developing, coaching, and supporting special education professionals and programs. This work recognizes that the function of the special education team leader, whether full-time or part of other duties, is foundational to successful school, educator, service provider, and family collaboration in support of students with special needs; and we know that equipping team leaders with the knowledge, confidence, and perspective to create positive systems change on behalf of students can leapfrog significant improvements in delivering special education services and build future leadership capacity.

Laurel sends out a monthly IEP Team Leader Update to a large and growing community of IEP team leaders across both Massachusetts and Connecticut. The updates contain monthly guidance and perspective about leading these meetings. It is part of the work to support a network of successful professionals in this critically important role in special education in both states. Laurel says, “It’s exciting to see … the community of support and friendship that the people in this program have built. They are truly demonstrating respect, kindness, cooperation and a sense of hospitality toward students, families, colleagues and one another as they lead IEP teams across the state.”

Current and past members of the Institute are also often members of the three Communities of Practice, outgrowths of the SETLI experience, that meet regularly throughout the school year.  In addition to serving IEP team leaders, the Communities of Practice also serve Section 504 coordinators  The community is a foundational part of the learning. Members of the network ask questions of each other and of Laurel, sharing solutions and tools that help each other leapfrog forward. One SETLI participant said about the experience, “For the first time in my 3 years in special education administration, I have not felt alone in navigating the special education world.” That is a shared sentiment, as the members of this lively network support each other in professionalizing this critical role in education.   

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