A weekend interview with Monica Verra-Tirado, new director of the Florida Bureau of Exceptional Education
Monica Verra-Tirado earned a reputation as a problem solver with a passion for kids during her seven years leading Pasco County's department of special education. So when the post of bureau chief for the state's Exceptional Education division opened last year, her name naturally came up. The department recruited her, and after several weeks of waiting, Verra-Tirado officially got word that she had won the job a week ago. She spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek about her education philosophy and her plans to oversee the state agency.
Why are you leaving Pasco schools to go work for the state?
I am just totally excited about the opportunity to work with the Department of Education and learn new ways I can help our state, which will also help Pasco County, to serve our students better, help them to meet the new requirements successfully. So I see this as an opportunity to learn and grow and serve not only Pasco but all the children in the state of Florida.
What ideas do you bring from Pasco that you think will be able to help you in Tallahassee?
Some of the things that we've learned in Pasco through our partnerships through Response to Intervention and multi-tiered assistance support have really helped us to see how important it is that all of the instructional departments work very very closely together and not work in silos. That we focus all of our energy on student performance and student outcomes. And when we work together we really begin to see a difference for the students. Another thing we've seen here in Pasco has been really the emphasis on inclusionary practices. Again, by partnering with the instructional departments, partnering closely with schools, with families, we've seen a lot of success with our students who are being served in basic education. They've really each year continued to make gains. Our graduation rate we're really proud of. We've met and exceeded the state several years in a row. So we're just really excited to see our students graduating, because that changes their lifetime and their family forever, having that diploma. Those are some of the things I've learned here that I hope I can bring that perspective, just coming from a district. ...
What will your role be? Will you be advising districts on how to improve their special education programs? Will you be just a bureaucrat?
The role of the bureau chief is really to work very closely with schools, to provide technical assistance. So it really is providing professional development, technical assistance, support for new initiatives. For example, the problem solving Response to Intervention project was a partnership with the bureau and USF and local school districts. So that's one example of how our work in the Department of Education can be connected and hands-on, to work side by side to support schools to improve.
You were an assistant principal and a teacher. Were you an ESE teacher?
Yes. I started as a basic education teacher and we had inclusion for students with emotional-behavioral disabilities. And I became really interested in learning more about special education. That motivated me to get a master's in special education, so that I could be a better teacher for those students who were being served in my classroom. After that, I had an opportunity in my school to move into a special education classroom. As an assistant principal, I was at Northwest Elementary, where we have cluster services for some of our students who require more intensive supports. So I had another opportunity to understand more about the needs of our students, as well as how to partner with our families so we can work together as a team for the students' best interests.
That also includes gifted.
Yes, in our local school district gifted is part of ESE and parts of gifted are housed in the department I am going to be working with, but other parts are not.
How can you be sure when you're working on inclusion as you're talking about you don't lose track of the needs of every group so that you don't make one group fall behind while another group is trying to get ahead?
Right. That's a good point and a legitimate concern. And really, how we do that is by very carefully monitoring data and working to determine what the outcomes are and looking to see who is this benefiting, how is this benefiting the students and do we need to make some changes so all of the students' needs are being met. Through differentiated instruction, we are able to accomplish that. And that is another example of the kind of initiative that needs to be implemented through a partnership of basic education, special education, staff development, gifted education, etc. But with best practice, professional development to train teachers in those best practices, and then monitoring data to be sure everybody is making gains and exceeding and excelling, I think we can feel pretty confident those efforts will be successful.
How do you get teachers to buy into and completely, thoroughly do differentiated instruction when you're not paying them more and they have 20, 30 kids in a classroom and everybody has got different needs? That's a lot of hard work.
Our experiences have been that with support and training ... and then opportunities, really. What gets exciting as classroom teachers is when you see success, you see that you're able to reach kids in ways that are unique and ways that maybe we haven't attempted before. That actually becomes a motivating factor for teachers to want to go down that path and to continue to develop those skills, so they can meet all student needs.
So do you not believe in separating kids by their abilities - ability grouping?
The research suggests that we need to consider a variety of groupings for different purposes. There might be some times when students of similar abilities for certain areas, it may make sense for them to be grouped together to get a specific intervention or instruction. And there may be other times that students with diverse abilities, it makes sense for them to be working together. Maybe they have different abilities but a shared interest. The key with differentiated instruction is it really is focusing on flexible grouping and not pigeonholing kids to one kind of group, or tracking kids. It's really more about different ways of helping kids to learn that taps into their strengths, their areas of interest, their preferred learning styles. And yes, you're right, it does require a lot of work to teach that way. But I know the teachers who have really mastered that find it very, very rewarding because they truly are able to see the individual student growth. And that's exciting. That's what teachers are there for.
Do you have a reason, a story about why you got into special education? Was there a student? A class?
Absolutely. Yes. ... My first assignment was at Seven Springs Elementary, and we were on an EH, which is emotionally handicaps, inclusion team. And I found that I just really had a heart and compassion for the students with emotional and behavior disabilities, and loved it. We were a multiage class -- I had third, fourth and fifth graders -- and I had everyone from students with learning disabilities, emotional and behavior disabilities, to gifted students. And we were a family. And we supported one another. And I really got excited about seeing kids make progress and wanted to know more about special education, and really fell in love with it. That's what inspired me. ... Now that so much of my career has been in special education, I see that where we need to go in the future is thinking of it as an "every ed" and that we are all working together for the same common goal. ...
You now have your doctorate, and you've been with the Pasco school district for 18 years. What makes you want to change now?
I love Pasco County. I'm a Gulf High graduate. ... I've been here in the same local community since 1986, since I was 16 years old. I love Pasco. I also though see this as an exciting opportunity to learn and to grow and to help contribute, hopefully, some positive ideas that will benefit not only students in Pasco but students statewide. I really believe in servant leadership and I see this as an opportunity to serve. I hope I will be able to, along with colleagues ... and parents work together to find a new way of work in special ed and general ed. This is a very exciting time to be in education. It's a very challenging time, but it's a very exciting time.