Pupil Personnel Administrator of the Year: Meeting all student needs

One of ACSA’s mission statements is that the association will work to “ensure all students have the essential skills and knowledge needed to excel.” Diane Graziani-Orton, retired deputy superintendent for Exeter Union School District, put that belief on the line every day as a leader of curriculum, personnel, special programs and student services.

For her outstanding efforts, Graziani-Orton has been recognized as ACSA’s 2011 Pupil Personnel Administrator of the Year.

Student services educators know that many students can learn and achieve by utilizing different methods than those that work in a regular classroom. Graziani-Orton said student services is absolutely essential to addressing the entire student.

“As educators we speak of ‘children first,’ which means meeting student needs as they are presented to us, whether academic, physical, emotional or social,” she said. “Whether we agree with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, as educators we know that success, however defined, is dependent on high academic expectations in the classroom, safety on the school grounds and community, and healthy social and emotional connections on our campuses.

“Working in this field is often trying but so rewarding. We know of students whose resiliency is amazing; who are examples of overcoming daily challenges, which are clearly out of their control. These children need us to listen, guide, keep them safe and never, never give up on them.”

Graziani-Orton said there are many crucial student services programs, with Response to Intervention 2 providing overall direction.

“RTI2 is the framework for our work with students both academically and behaviorally,” she said. “It is a general education approach which uses data to determine the success of the district and school programs and informs our response. It is so important to view RTI2 as a mandate for systemic improvement which will in turn, when successfully implemented, address the full range of student needs.”

Graziani-Orton noted there are numerous aspects to student services programs in California schools.

“The health and well-being of our children requires that we keep open lines of communication between multiple agencies,” she said. “Building close relationships with the local agencies that work with students and families around such pressing issues as mental health, special education, foster youth, teen pregnancy, substance use and abuse, gang awareness and suppression, and child endangerment is my absolute obligation as the pupil personnel/student services director.”

Of particular concern are the growing numbers of neglected and abused children being removed from their homes into a foster care system already overtaxed.

“Our schools must ensure that these children are not further traumatized by multiple changes to their educational program and the potential impact such changes have on their social and emotional development,” Graziani-Orton said. “We must find ways to create a safety net for our most fragile children. The education system cannot be seen as adding to the problem when requirements such as immunization records or local graduation requirements run counter to a student’s immediate needs and future success.”

ACSA has been an important part of Graziani-Orton’s career. From 1991 to today, she has served Region 11 as a director, vice president and president. She has represented her region on the state Curriculum, Instruction and Accountability Council.

When asked why she considers ACSA involvement to be so important to her career, Graziani-Orton simply said: “No (wo)man is an island.”

“Preparing our children for leadership and success in an ever-changing world cannot be done in a vacuum; we need each other,” she said. “I am so very grateful for the guidance and mentorship available to me through my association with quality, thought-provoking administrators throughout the state.

“As an example, our district is instituting a transitional kindergarten program this August in advance of the 2012-13 mandate. My membership as the Region 11 representative to the Curriculum, Instruction and Accountability Council has afforded me access to the best practitioners in the state. An email to my committee members elicited a wealth of knowledge gained from real-life experiences.”

Thinking about ACSA caused Graziani-Orton to reflect on her career, which began in 1970 as a teacher in a small Ohio town. She moved to California in 1973 and subsequently climbed up the educational career ladder, retiring in June.

“I am reminded of so many administrators and district leaders who through the years saw something in me and encouraged me to move into greater administrative and leadership roles,” she said. “My mission is to give back – pay it forward. My involvement in ACSA at the local, regional and state level has been the vehicle by which to accomplish my mission.”

Graziani-Orton grew lighthearted when asked what went through her mind upon learning of this statewide honor.

“Holy cow there has been a big mistake! No really, this is not possible,” she said. “So I kept it to myself for a while. To say I was shocked would be an understatement.

“Then I felt immensely humbled by the recognition because I personally know several much more deserving people in Tulare County and Region 11. As I end my career I will never forget the exceptional educators who are my friends and colleagues.”

No. 1 among these, she said, is Renee Whitson, superintendent of Exeter Public Schools, her mentor and friend.

“Isaac Newton wrote, ‘If I have seen further than others, it is from standing upon the shoulders of giants,’” Graziani-Orton said. “I dedicate this honor to the innumerable giants in my life.”

Graziani-Orton will be formally honored along with other award winners at the 2011 ACSA Leadership Summit, Nov. 3-5 in Sacramento. Register at www.acsa.org/leadershipsummit.