Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Pasco's special education director hired to lead state-level bureau

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."

• • •

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."

• • •

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.

• • •

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.

• • •

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.


Five Hernando County educators nominated for LifeChanger of the Year Awards

Hernando County Public Schools has five educators in the running for prizes ranging from $3,000 to $10,000 in the 2017-2018 national LifeChanger of the Year awards. The program will give out 17 awards.Travis Bruns and Doug Poteet of Pine Grove Elemen...
Updated: 10 hours ago
More teacher protests and another charter school approval expected at the Hillsborough County School Board meeting

More teacher protests and another charter school approval expected at the Hillsborough County School Board meeting

TAMPA — This will seem familiar: Teachers are mobilizing to protest outside Tuesday’s Hillsborough County School Board meeting about their frozen pay rates.And this too: A vote is expected on a new charter school.Florida Connections Academy is a virt...
Published: 01/23/18
Romano: Once again, state education leaders fail this simple test

Romano: Once again, state education leaders fail this simple test

Want to annoy an education leader in Florida?Tell them they’ve turned your child’s school into an assembly line of tiny test takers. Tell them innovation and imagination and excitement are rapidly disappearing in favor of teaching to the test.And whe...
Published: 01/23/18
Pinellas to look at high school start times today

Pinellas to look at high school start times today

Pinellas County school district officials have spent weeks analyzing bus routes and brainstorming ideas to see if later high school start times could be a reality this August.Today will tell how far they have come.Clint Herbic, associate superintende...
Published: 01/23/18

Class Notes for Jan. 26

Theatre/Art/MusicCenter for the Arts at River Ridge, 11646 Town Center Road, New Port Richey. (727) 774-7382.• The center’s Learn it Live! series presents The Three Little Pigs, at 10:30 a.m. Jan. 24- 25. Pre-K – grade 4. Public show at 11 a.m. Jan. ...
Published: 01/23/18
USF leaders move to calm fears over consolidation plan

USF leaders move to calm fears over consolidation plan

ST. PETERSBURG — Holding a piece of computer paper and a microphone, the leader of the University of South Florida St. Petersburg began a Friday afternoon forum by repeating the USF administration’s new mantra.He reassured the crowd before him that t...
Published: 01/19/18

Crews Lake thespians overcome the odds

SPRING HILL — It’s 8:30 a.m. — "homeroom" period in school speak — when kids in the Crews Lake Middle School drama club file into an empty chorus room to begin rehearsing under the direction of language arts teacher Kristen Sykora. There’s only 25 m...
Published: 01/19/18
Cuts hit top school leaders as Hillsborough sheds three six-figure salaries

Cuts hit top school leaders as Hillsborough sheds three six-figure salaries

TAMPA — Hillsborough County school superintendent Jeff Eakins on Friday announced the first in a series of belt-tightening moves that include the elimination of three six-figure positions.Jobs now held by Wynne Tye and Larry Sykes will no longer exis...
Published: 01/19/18
Tampa Bay schools warn parents about flu activity, dangers

Tampa Bay schools warn parents about flu activity, dangers

The Florida Department of Health has reported a sharp increase in flu activity in the last several weeks, prompting area schools to send out letters warning parents about the virus. At least two districts, however, say that flu activity in their scho...
Published: 01/19/18

More than 400 apply to Pasco technical high school

School choice for 2018-19 is in full swing, and district officials said they’ve been pleased with the interest they’ve seen so far.The window for applying to the district’s magnet schools closed Jan. 12, except for applications for the new Wendell Kr...
Published: 01/18/18