In one of her first public appearance since being tapped to head District 97 schools, incoming Supt. Connie Collins last week addressed a special education parents’ group, sharing her background and philosophy on special services.

Attendees”mostly parents of SEA, the Supported Education Association”asked questions of the incoming superintendent and mostly came away optimistic about the improving quality of special services at Dist. 97.

“She brings a lot of energy and experience,” said Melissa Koenig, mother of a son with special needs. “Oak Park does do a good job [with special education], but it’ll be good to have someone come in with a fresh eye.”

Koenig said Collins’ willingness to meet with SEA shows an openness and willingness to learn about issues parents and teachers of special needs students face.

“I’m pleased with what I heard tonight,” said Christine Grgurich, whose son is in the developmental learning program at Irving Elementary School, 1125 S. Cuyler Ave. “I think she’s right on track. It’s what I would expect.”

Collins repeatedly said that all parents in Oak Park public schools need to look out for all students, not just their own. Grgurich said that attitude is needed to bring special education students into the mainstream, so they can interact with regular education students and participate socially with other kids.

SEA parents praised the work Director of Special Services Steve Castle has done in the two school years he’s been with Dist. 97, and urged Collins to support his work. Castle and Collins sat at a table facing the crowd of approximately two dozen, finding similarity in their responses and philosophies.

“I get really excited when Dr. Collins speaks,” Castle said, because much of what she said “dovetails with things I’ve been talking about the past two years.”

“I feel incredibly optimistic,” said Barbara Biegaj, mother of a son with special needs at Whittier School, 713 N. Harvey Ave. “It seems to me like together [Collins and Castle] are going to work hard to do whatever is necessary to give kids with special needs everything they need to succeed”not just academically, but socially.”

Collins recounted her background, which began in special education at Indiana University, where she studied speech pathology. The achievement gap was shown clearly to her as a young girl in 1960s Gary, Ind., when integration to her meant bussing from her all-black school to an all-white one where supplies, facilities and opportunities were more abundant and accessible.

Collins said schools and parents need to impress the value and importance of education on children who might be dealing with “the problems of society” at home.

“People can take away your house. People can take away your car. But no one can take away your education,” Collins tells students, she said.

She worked through racially tense times in Kentwood, Mich., a district whose racial and economic diversity mirrors Oak Park’s.

In bringing people together, the school community needs to be able to accept that people will have differing views, but that everyone wants what’s best for the children, she said.

“Nobody can advocate for any child better than the parent,” Collins said. They know best that every child is different and has different needs.

“Our goal is to educate kids in this district”not fit kids into places, but to make a place” for every child, Collins said.

Collins has visited all 10 Dist. 97 schools, and appeared at the PTO Council meeting last week, too. A formal reception to welcome her to the district will be scheduled for this summer.
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