Loudoun County, Va. (February 4, 2015) – Athens, Greece, and Athens, Ala., recently made a special trip to talk about the needs of students with special abilities.
Marina Blair, an advocate and longtime Loudoun school volunteer (and a native of Athens, Greece,) and Beth Lewter, a transition learning specialist at Rock Ridge High School (and a native of Athens, Ala.,) went to Greece in December to share their knowledge of special education with high ranking government officials.
“It was always in my heart – my dream, actually – that I wanted to take some of the American special programs that we have in Loudoun to Greece,” said Blair. “…It was a dream I had for many, many years. Greece has done remarkably well the last several years in this area and that is why I felt that now the timing was perfect …I thought that even if one child is in a better situation through this personal effort, it is worth it. For this effort, I also wanted someone who would be very knowledgeable in this area. My dear friend, Beth Lewter, came immediately to mind.”
Blair and Lewter, upon their own initiative, flew to Athens where they stayed with Blair’s family. While there, the pair met with officials from the Greek ministries of Education and Health as well as American Ambassador David D. Pearce and his staff. They also met with Dr. Stefanos Gialamas, president of the American Community Schools, and other advocates of students with special abilities.
Greece has implemented formal legislation to help students with special needs. The practical implementation of these measures is not always easy, said Blair. Lewter added, “We just offered our support by presenting what we do here in Loudoun, especially in the transition area. By providing ideas regarding the process of taking kids out into the community and teaching them job skills and getting them prepared to work somewhere; …having a reason to get up and be happy every day.”
Blair brought along Lewter on the trip to provide practical advice on how to better serve students in a public school setting. Lewter’s presentation dealt with what went into the making of an IEP, the inclusion of special needs students in regular classroom settings and transition services that help students find a path to a successful adult life. “That seems to be something they’re lacking,” said Blair. “What do these kids do once they’re out of the public school system? There’s some support there, but a lot of the input we got was, ‘Well, our kid just hangs around at home every day.’ They don’t have the process where they’re taking kids out into the community and teaching them job skills and getting them prepared to work somewhere; having a reason to get up and be happy every day.
“We are very fortunate to have what we have here in Loudoun,” Blair added…”All programs can be better, let’s face it. However, what we have here is very good…children can be helped.”
Lewter’s presentations were met with enthusiasm. “We met with a lot of people,” said Blair. “They listened to us and they welcomed us.”
Blair is hoping to have six Greek educators visit Loudoun in the spring in an effort to show “hands on” how special education programs are implemented here. “It will be very exciting to welcome these educators into our schools and show them what we do in our classrooms. We made some wonderful connections while in Greece and I hope all of this will end up with great results.”
Blair and Lewter will be making a return trip to Greece during the summer to participate in a forum focusing on students with special abilities.
Blair’s experience with special education in Loudoun County Public Schools (LCPS) dates back to when she started volunteering at Lowes Island Elementary in 1997. “Throughout the years, I had the opportunity and blessing to meet and work with some remarkable LCPS educators who helped so many children and also supported the families in their journey.” (Among the LCPS educators Blair had particular praise for are Bob Marple, now the principal at Cedar Lane Elementary, Kerri Spitler and the late Debbie Vaz).
Blair learned how different special education could be overseas when her husband’s work took them abroad. “Where we were assigned, the schools provided very little special education support. And yes, it is in times like this when you realize the importance of the programs we have in our Loudoun County schools.
“After we returned to the States,” Blair said, “I offered my volunteer services as a Special Education Advisory Committee representative at Dominion High School and I immediately got down to work.”
Lewter was teaching at Dominion and that is where she and Blair met. Lewter describes Blair as the “ultimate advocate” for students with special needs. “She will leave no stone unturned in her pursuit of educating everyone.”
While at Dominion, Blair lobbied Principal John Brewer to change the designation for students with “special needs” to students with “special abilities.” (A change Brewer accepted willingly.) “All children have abilities and nobody likes to be thought of as needy,” said Blair.
Blair would like to extend her deepest appreciation to LCPS Special Education Supervisor Dr. Melissa Hartman, Rock Ridge High School Principal John Duellman, Marple, Rock Ridge Counseling Director Kevin Terry and, of course, Lewter for their kindness in supporting this effort.
“No matter where you are in the world,” said Blair, “I believe the best way to support the children is for the families to keep the faith, have patience and never allow themselves to give up hope.”