Among the most complex areas of education is special education. These students not only have varied special needs based on their individualized education programs, but there are myriad legal requirements with which to adhere.
It takes a unique kind of person to navigate all this and see that each student in special education is provided the free and appropriate public education to which they are entitled. One such person is Susan Coston, assistant superintendent with Merced County Office of Education and ACSA’s 2012 Special Education Administrator of the Year.
Coston said she always knew she wanted to be a teacher, ever since she was a little girl. As part of her training to become an educator she got to know some special education students and was instantly attracted to that field of education.
“During my teacher preparation I took a special education practicum as an introductory course to special education,” Coston said. “I was placed with preschoolers with significant needs who melted my heart. I was instantly hooked by their eagerness to try everything asked of them and their instant smiles.”
Coston firmly believes interactions between people are the key in ensuring that all special ed students in the county get the best education possible.
“Relationships, relationships, relationships,” she said. “Working closely with families, staff and agencies has been the key to ensuring the best possible education for students with special needs in Merced County. Listening and being open to possibilities has minimized the due process filings for outside assistance to resolve local issues.”
Coston has been with Merced COE since 1988, serving in positions including special education teacher, program specialist and program coordinator prior to moving into her current position as assistant superintendent of special education in 2002.
One of her top priorities has been ensuring special education students get improved classroom facilities. She took the lead in working with the state Office of Public School Construction to plan and build 30 projects for students with severe disabilities. She has worked tirelessly to see that existing facilities for special ed students are upgraded. Coston said it was work that simply needed to be done.
“The special education facilities in Merced County for students with significant needs were small, dated and limited,” she said. “Fortunately, the host districts were open to adding new large, state-of-the-art facilities on their campuses. The new facilities better supported the physical therapy and vocational needs of students.”
Coston also played a key role in the development and implementation of Merced COE’s strategic plan. She collaborated with superintendents and other school leaders to promote the inclusion of special ed students into standard education classrooms. And she helped the Merced County Challenged Family Resource Center obtain funding to assist in their goal of training parents and offering behavior management strategies for their children.
Coston also works to ensure her employees are offered professional development opportunities. One example is the recently implemented program, Speed of Trust.
“All the special education administrators were trained in Speed of Trust,” Coston said. “This training provided a common framework and language to assist the department in implementation of a department-wide, three-tiered model of educational and behavioral services. The 13 behaviors of high trust provided the framework to have conversations about what was working well or not so well in a positive, supportive environment.”
These are just a few examples of how Coston has earned respect among state SELPA directors and other special ed leaders. Steven Gomes, Merced County superintendent of schools, lauded Coston’s contributions in a letter of support for this award.
“She has vastly improved the special education facilities across the county, and students are in better learning environments today because of her efforts,” he wrote.
To this respect is now added ACSA’s statewide recognition as the Special Education Administrator of the Year, an award Coston finds humbling.
“I am more comfortable showcasing the incredible contributions and talents of the staff I am fortunate to work with,” she said. “I provide the motivation, the guidance and the necessary resources to help ensure our students succeed to the best of their ability. I am successful when they are successful.”
Coston will be formally honored, together with all Administrators of the Year, during ACSA’s Leadership Summit, Nov. 8-10 in San Diego. To register, visit www.acsa.org/leadershipsummit. Access photos of the award recipient at www.flickr.com/photos/acsaevents.