Interim special education administrator appoints team

Debra Ecker, interim administrator for special education and student services. (SUBMITTED PHOTO/THE WESTFIELD NEWS)

WESTFIELD – Debra Ecker, the interim administrator of special education and support services for Westfield Public Schools, announced this week in a letter to parents and the community the appointment of supervisors for the Special Education Department.

Ecker said she wanted to put the letter out to thank Westfield for the opportunity to serve, and to let people know that there are changes, adding, “I think they’re great changes.”

Jennifer Smidy was appointed elementary special education supervisor, Ecker’s former position in the district. Previously, Smidy served as a special education teacher and evaluation team leader in Westfield.

Kerry Chapderlane-Cox, who was named intermediate and middle school special education supervisor, previously served as a special education teacher at Westfield Intermediate School. Ecker said that Chapderlane-Cox also has previous special education administrative experience.

New hire Melissa Mirhej, who will be the high school level special education supervisor, comes to Westfield with many years experience as a teacher, consultant and administrator.

“When we started, we needed to hire a new administrative team. I am happy to have these capable ladies on board,” Ecker said, adding that their experience will benefit the district.
“Two of them are in the district already. It’s nice to hire from within,” Ecker said. She said Mirhaj is the only one new to Westfield, and comes with special education administrative experience within a couple of charter schools, as well as administrative work in Springfield. “She has a good sense of special education as a teacher and consultant, also working with programming. She is very well rounded,” Ecker said.

Ecker herself just started her third year in Westfield, serving the first two as elementary level supervisor, after 18 years in the Springfield district, first as a teacher for the developmental skills program for intensive special needs students for 13 years, then as an evaluation team leader for five years.

She said she was not entirely new to Westfield, however. “When I was teaching in Springfield, I used to teach summer school at Fort Meadow for many years, for a change of pace. I like the early childhood component, too ,and knew Westfield somewhat from that experience,” she said.

Ecker stated that her vision as administrator is for the special education department to be a collaborative piece of the Westfield Public School community, by increasing communication and accessibility to all of its members.

“Coming into Westfield in the last couple of years, what I’ve found and embraced is that it’s a very collaborative district.. Whether a special education administrator, principal, teacher, student, or staff, everybody is very invested. As a supervisor, I tried to create special education as an extension and piece of the school, not a separate entity. Decision-making, took input from everybody, and helped inform people that special education is one piece of the school community,” Ecker said.

A part of that community is the Special Education Parent Advisory Committee. Ecker said she met with some members last week, and she worked with parent advocate Rachel Bullock last year in making presentations for incoming preschool children. She said she has an upcoming Zoom meeting with SEPAC and her new team to answer questions that they may have right now.

Asked her thoughts on the latest news from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) about starting the school year with 10 days of staff training, Ecker said she thinks it will be helpful for the district overall. She said the start of school will be different than in previous years; not only due to the variety of curriculum with remote learning, but also the need for safety training. “It’s important that we do a thorough job of that,” she said.

Ecker said that DESE is recommending bringing in high needs students first; children who can’t really access remote learning and are receiving special education services for more than half of the day. “Our hope is that when we start with the phased in approach, our high needs students will be face to face from the start,” she said.

“It’s Important to remember we’re all in this together; whether in an IEP meeting, dealing with staff or talking with students, if we are all in a team, everybody will benefit,” Ecker said.

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