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Q&A: Veteran Meriden educator looks to inspire in special education

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MERIDEN — The school system recently welcomed back longtime special educator Laurie Labato-DiTomasso, who served the district for 18 years, as a new supervisor of special education overseeing the entire district.

Starting her career in Meriden in 2004, DiTomasso worked in the district for 28 years until leaving last November for another supervisory position for the Colchester public schools. However, according to her, the camaraderie in Meriden brought her back, as school officials work to expand their special education department to accommodate more students.

The Board of Education warmly welcomed her back during a board meeting earlier this month, pleased to again have her as part of their special education team. “We’re thrilled to have you back, it’s incredible to have such great people in our district and keeping on the tradition. It’s wonderful to have you,” board President Robert Kosienski Jr. said during the meeting.

The Record-Journal sat down with DiTomasso in her office last week to ask her several questions about her career, and where she wants to take the special education department under her leadership.

Q: Where did you start your career to get where you are today?

A: “I started out in Massachusetts as a K-2 teacher and rapidly learned that I didn’t have enough knowledge and got my master’s in reading and started really becoming a lifelong learner. I taught there until it was time to move, and then we moved to Connecticut and I found Meriden,” DiTomasso said. She began working with children in the classroom as a special educator for around nine years, until she took a larger role later to assist children across the entire district with her unique expertise.

“I was brought in to work on inclusionary practices for kids 3, 4, 5. … because I had two majors, reading and the special ed, which is kind of unusual, I was asked to take on a district ride role and step out of the classroom full-time and become a district-wide special education reading specialist. And then I started working in all the buildings across the district in whatever programs needed me to help support children and families in accessing reading for their kiddos.”

Getting her master’s degree in special education at Westfield State and a minor in multicultural education and reading, DiTomasso was initially inspired to go into the field by her parents, who were Italian immigrants and had no high school education. She took to reading a lot as an escape as a kid, and after learning her father wasn’t able to read, wanted to dedicate herself to teaching students the skills they needed to succeed.

Q: What is the value of reading to the children you work with?

A: “All depends on the student I’m working with and what their goals are, what their goals are for them. because in Meriden you look at college and career readiness, but we also work at getting ready for the community and what their space is within the community. So it all depends on the individual child. When I was working with a high schooler, I’d find out what their journey was, where they wanted to go, and what type of a career path or job path, and then we look at what do you need to have in order to do that. A lot of times it is a level of literacy, so then we start targeting those levels. When I’m working with a child in the STARS program, it’s all about communication. because reading, writing, it’s all a form of communication,” DiTomasso said.

“It all depends on where they are in the world and what literacy means to them… so just giving them an avenue into their world.”

Q: How has working in Meriden schools evolved over the past 19 years you’ve been in the district?

A: “The biggest thing I’ve seen is like the program that I’m now the supervisor of, which is the elementary STARs (Strategies for Teaching based on Autism Research). When I started there were just three classrooms. I actually counted last night, we now have 11 classrooms with 101 children. So we’re seeing an increase of need in Meriden and that requires a lot of of teamwork. This is a school district that really values working as a team and collaboratively. We work not in isolation, but Meriden has grown a lot. I’ve got a lot that I’ve learned because they provide us with opportunities for growth and leadership,” DiTomasso said.

According to DiTomasso, one of the most important aspects of her position is being a leader and helping the district allocate resources for teachers and students where they’re needed. Over the course of her career as an educator and supervisor, she noted that there were many people along that path that helped her grow into her role today.

With many new special education teachers having been brought in this semester to bolster the district’s ongoing efforts to expand their programming, DiTomasso wants to be that figure the teachers can turn to when they need help and support.

“I’m hoping that by being a supervisor, you always hear about teacher retention so difficult, and the teacher’s job is so difficult, and I have a full understanding of that. I hope that I can be that support person that teachers know they can turn to, and that I’ll be there and can give them the support that they need,” she said. “Because we’re a community and I want to be a part of that community who teachers can reflect back on and say, oh, that’s an administrator that supported me when I started out … And when it comes to change, I want to just keep moving the program forward and helping children become as successful as they can be. And that takes a lot, especially with such a growing population in need.”

It was the support and camaraderie that ended up drawing her back to Meriden after she left last semester, wishing to continue to be a part of the district’s growth.

Q: What are some of the most valuable experiences you’ve had in the classroom?

A: “One time in our classroom you weren’t able to go on a field trip because it rained. And so we created the field trip in our classroom,” said DiTomasso, who said that the weather rained out what was supposed to be a day-long trip to an apple orchard. “Watching these paras come together to give these kids this experience in a classroom setting … It shows you all the amazing things that you can do with just a little bit of creativity, I guess you’d say. That was one of those really great days where it could have been a rainy disaster, but it became this incredible thing, watching the kids grow emotionally, socially, and kind of putting it all together in this really neat way that was unexpected.”

Another experience she recalled was managing to work with a nonverbal student one year, and actually being able to watch their progress through their education coming out of their shell with reading and learning to communicate and blossom into a verbal communicator.

DiTomasso said she is excited to be back in the district where she made all those valuable memories over the course of her teaching career and was looking forward to continuing to grow the programs under her leadership and contribute to a community she believes has much to offer.

“I love the spice in Meriden,” DiTomasso said. “That’s why I came back.”



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