Toni Vernier, new Director of Special Ed for the Sonoma Valley School District, in conversation with The Sun’s Anna Pier.
I know you’ve just come to the District as Director of Special Education.
That’s right. I began informally the last half of June, and officially July 1. I am filling a position that was covered last year by an Associate Superintendent.
What’s the career path that brought you here?
I am coming from 17 years in the Marysville district, where I was Director of Special Ed for the last 14 years. I started as a school psychologist, quickly moved to assistant principal, then for two years I was head of Program Improvement, directed at low-performing schools. There were seven schools, including the largest high school, under that federal program. We improved them all, and did a total turnaround for four of them.
What were the components of that success?
Very focused data systems, solid curriculum, and strong intervention.
What’s your educational background?
I graduated from Sonoma State with double degrees, in Psychology and Criminal Justice. And I was actually enrolled in both graduate school for psychology and the police academy. I decided for education. I have a M. A. degree from Chico State in School Psychology.
I knew it was time for a new job, a new challenge. Sonoma has unique performance challenges. I was looking for a district where I could dig in, support, be at work in a problem-solving mode. Very meaningful work. Why weren’t we doing better? I came for three interviews, with Socorro (Shiels, Superintendent), Andrew (Ryan, Human Resources) and Elizabeth (Kaufman, associate superintendent, Ed Services). Everyone was so smart, so interesting. The whole team is amazing. I felt a connection and knew it was a right fit. And it is – my work is exciting again.
What are your goals?
Right now we’re setting goals with the principals. There hasn’t been a consistent culture of data or district-wide curriculum for elementary. Now we have it, as well as an intervention curriculum. Change in schools is a heavy lift. But we’ve got a good start with the new research-based curriculum.
Tell me about special ed.
Fifteen percent of the students in the district are in special ed, and that’s high. The California average is 11 percent. I suspect some have language acquisition issues and are not correctly classified. I will be developing a Special Education Improvement Plan that needs to be submitted to the state by December 1. Improvement targets we need to meet are: graduation rate, chronic absenteeism, suspension rate, academic performance in English-Language Arts and math, least restrictive environment (meaning increase the time students with special needs participate in the general education program), and post-school outcomes (meaning increase the number of students with special needs who attend college).
Challenges of distance learning? The challenges that all students have are magnified for special ed kids. They are the most adversely affected. Many have focus and attention challenges, and all special ed kids need individual help, direct attention. This is something we will be trying to address. We have a psychologist for every site, and they will be working to help parents with everything, including behavior. I’m very concerned. And of course we are still responsible for IEPs (Individual Education Plans), including evaluations at the start of the year.
What intrigues you about special ed?
It is the whole diagnostic piece, a little puzzle. What does a child need so they can learn? I like designing individual programs, designing classroom systems, and designing school systems. The average career span in special ed is ten years. But I’m starting my 15th year and I find it truly rewarding.
To be a school counselor. I wrote a paper in seventh grade about how nice I thought it would be to go to work at a school every day to help children and families. I got an A. When I was really little, I imagined being a teacher and told myself I wouldn’t write kids’ names on the board and put check marks by them.
What was your first job?
I was a school psychologist for five years in Salinas City Elementary. It was a wonderful district and community. I was required to learn Spanish, so every night I went to Spanish classes. I got pretty good, but I’ve lost it.
What do you do in your free time?
I love being on the water, hiking, cooking, reading, and spoiling my four daughters and my nieces.
– Interview by Anna Pier