LAND O'LAKES — Monica Verra-Tirado gets plenty of hugs these days.
For weeks, Verra-Tirado waited to learn if she had won the job leading Florida's Bureau of Exceptional Education and Student Services. She had signals, but nothing in writing.
Official word arrived about 10 days ago. She turned in her resignation Tuesday as Pasco's special education director. The flowers and hugs followed.
Verra-Tirado teared up as she reflected upon her love of all things Pasco, where she graduated from Gulf High, raised a family and created a career. Yet she felt compelled to seek the state-level position.
"To whom much is given, much is expected," Verra-Tirado said, paraphrasing Scripture. "I need to give back."
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The oldest of seven siblings, Verra-Tirado and her family moved a lot while she was growing up in Hawaii.
Electricity wasn't always an option. She had to trade tokens for her free lunch at school.
There was no hiding it. "We were very poor."
But what her family lacked in material wealth, it made up in its adherence to the belief that things could only get better.
"My parents established for us some things that define who I am," Verra-Tirado said. "A love of reading, that education is very important, and to love the Lord."
Her family moved to Pasco when she was a teenager, and those values got her through Gulf High and beyond, despite the challenges.
By age 19, she was a single mom, living in Section 8 housing, working 40 hours a week at McDonald's and pursuing her first degree at St. Petersburg Junior College. She kept on flipping burgers right up to the week she took her first teaching job at Seven Springs Elementary School in 1993.
Now 41 and having recently earned her doctorate from the University of South Florida, Verra-Tirado said she hopes her rise can inspire others.
"There are people who have very challenging circumstances, and they sometimes feel their circumstances will dictate their opportunities," said Verra-Tirado, who is married and has two grown children. "I pray every day that somehow I can be a blessing to people."
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John Mann saw Verra-Tirado's promise from the moment he met her. He was principal at Seven Springs Elementary, interviewing dozens of applicants for a job in an inclusion classroom.
"I was looking for someone I felt had the potential to be an excellent teacher," said Mann, now a district-level director. "I was fortunate to hire Monica."
At the time, Verra-Tirado recalled, she knew little about including students with special needs into a regular classroom. But she was willing to try.
"I really fell in love with this idea that students with special needs can be included," she said. "They are special. You need to embrace them for who they are."
Intrigued to learn more, she joined a group of teachers to pursue master's degrees in special education at USF.
Stefanie Simon, a student in Verra-Tirado's first class, said her teacher's compassion stood out.
"She created such a warm classroom environment," Simon said. "No one was treated differently to the point they would notice. Everyone had their place. ... It really was a second home."
Simon, who teaches at Anclote High School, said Verra-Tirado did not have the behavior problems in class that so many other teachers would, because she treated everyone so well.
"If there were more people like her, I think the school system would be a lot better," she said.
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Renee Sedlack hired Verra-Tirado in 2000 as assistant principal at Northwest Elementary.
"I liked Monica because she was very energetic. She's a quick learner. And she's a good problem solver," said Sedlack, who recently retired. "She looks at all the variables and sees the best solution for the child."
That focus has served Verra-Tirado well. She progressed to head Pasco's Title I department, serving low-income students and schools, before taking over the county's special education department almost seven years ago.
She assumed these district-level posts as No Child Left Behind was taking hold. That played well with her views that every child, regardless of grouping, could succeed.
Verra-Tirado focused on raising expectations for students with disabilities.
During her tenure, the district saw an increase in those students earning diplomas — among the best in Florida — and a corresponding dip in dropout rates. She also ushered in methods to deal with behavior and academic concerns before they become full-blown problems.
"Every time we get a student with a diploma, that changes their life outcomes," she said, arguing the state should count special diploma recipients as graduates.
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State officials have high hopes for Verra-Tirado as she takes her new job Feb. 27.
"Dr. Verra-Tirado has demonstrated excellent leadership in Pasco County. She brings great experience and energy to this new position and we are pleased to have her joining our staff," said Mary Jane Tappen, deputy chancellor of K-12 education.
Her job will include administering the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and providing technical assistance to schools, districts and families.
Verra-Tirado, who plans to keep her New Port Richey home, said she will perform those duties and more without losing sight of the people to whom these services matter.
"I'm going to follow my core values," she said, "wake up every day with a hope and belief that if I do my best, in some small way I can make a difference."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected], (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.