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USDOE special education chief: ‘A sense of community’ is key to Pacific program success


Saipan, CNMI — On Monday, U.S. Department of Education Special Education Program Director Valerie Williams praised the special education program’s success in the Pacific, crediting stakeholder engagement, which she said “remains difficult to achieve in some states and school districts in the nation.”

Williams said a sense of community is the reason why the special education programs of the CNMI Public School System, Guam, American Samoa, the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and the Republic of Palau have “done a stellar job.”

“I believe you, our Pacific entities, have a better handle on building relationships than what we have in some of the states,” she added. “You have a sense of community and I think you have done a stellar job in getting input, participation, and responses from your stakeholders. What this means is, essentially, is you are ‘hearing them out’ on how the special education program can continue to better serve our constituents.”

Williams also highlighted the importance of regional dialogues as critical and essential in raising the program’s level of accountability.

Based on the school-year 2021-2022 data from the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of students 3 to 21 years old who received special education and/or related services under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Act was 7.3 million. This is equivalent to 15% of all public school students.

“What we are talking about is understanding the needs of our stakeholders… their unmet needs,” Williams said. “I am not saying it is easy. Listening to your stakeholders is not easy but there is respect in what we do as educators.”

Williams was the keynote speaker on the first day of the Pacific Data Collaborative at the Hyatt Regency Saipan on Monday. The participants are the Pacific region’s special education program state directors, officers, program leaders, and data managers. Williams appeared virtually.

The five-day event is jointly initiated by the CNMI PSS and Guam Special Education Programs and facilitated by the University of Guam’s CEDDERS IDEA Data Center, a federally funded technical assistance center, and the global assistive technology company TextHelp.

This is the first time it has been held on Saipan.

SPED is part of general education

Williams said special education students are part of the general education curriculum.

“As I have mentioned in many of my discussions with all of you, college is for…everyone, including our students with special needs. This is why we fully support the expansion of opportunities to learn, including our students with disabilities. Our students deserve…to live a full independent life. Our job and what we do is clear: is to get them ready when school is over. If we do that, we are successful. That requires partnership and collaboration, including with our vocational rehabilitation partners. On your islands, things go well,” Williams said.

She said one essential key to success is communication.

 “We believe behavior is a form of communication, a hidden language. It is our job as adults to make sure that we are able to respond to them…and the behavior is addressed…and that they are immersed in an academic setting and that they are learning,” Williams said.

She added, “I want to commend  PSS Special Education led by Director Donna Flores, Guam Special Education Director Tom Babauta and Guam CEDDERS and IDEA IDC for facilitating this dialogue. This is extremely critical because nothing happens in a vacuum. In order for us to be successful, we have to be engaged and be part of the ongoing discussion — that special education students are general education students.”

 She added, “I want you all to know that you have my support for anything you want to do moving forward. I am very mindful of the need for more funding for our program to continue to be meaningful and to implement our work for our students with disabilities.”

PSS Special Education Program Director Flores praised Williams for her determination to support the Pacific programs.

“Director William is really the champion for the Pacific entities,” Flores said.

She also credited the leadership of PSS Commissioner of Education Dr. Lawrence F. Camacho and his predecessors for highlighting the importance of programs for students with disabilities.

“I am proud and happy that we have such good leadership here. We have a good support system here, especially with our commissioner and his key management,” Flores said in her opening remarks.

“When we talk about regional and national support, it all starts in our respective entities. We may be geographically isolated, but we have a bigger and louder voice now because of the support we receive from our leaders,” she added.

Near and dear

Commissioner of Education Dr. Lawrence F. Camacho said the collaboration among island entities and partners led to Saipan’s hosting of the gathering of special education leaders and decision makers.

“I hold the program near and dear to my heart. I am going to ensure that we are going to support our program within the Public School System and make sure it remains successful. Thank you for your collaboration. Thank you, Director Donna Flores. And welcome to Saipan and to the CNMI Public School System,” Camacho told the event participants.