Guiding families through the maze of special education



Tonia Lewis has made it a mission to help families maneuver through the complicated world of special education.

As a nurse and parent coordinator for the Howard County Family Support and Resource Center, in Faulkner Ridge Center, Lewis has helped hundreds of people with disabilities.

Lewis was recently named recipient of the 2006 Carolyn Savage Award by the Maryland State Department of Education.

Developed in 1999, the award celebrates the legacy of Carolyn Savage, a mother, community advocate and former Maryland State Department of Education staff member who worked with young children with disabilities and their families.

"Tonia Lewis exemplifies what great things can happen when parents and educators work together to meet the needs of children," said state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick in a statement. "Ms. Lewis received six separate nominations from both parents and professionals who deal with the education of special-needs students on a daily basis. That is a true testament to her outstanding contributions, not only within Howard County but statewide."

Lewis, 49, said she was honored to receive the award.

"Just getting the award is the icing on the cake," said Lewis, of Columbia. "It's still overwhelming to me and very moving."

As a parent coordinator, Lewis said she organizes workshops, meets with parents and works with support groups.

Lewis said she makes a concerted effort to reach families -- typically led by single parents -- that do not feel comfortable with the special-education system.

"Some do not have cars, some do not have the means," Lewis said. "We look for resources that help give parents a break. We find child care, piano lessons and barbers."

She added: "I advocate for children. I help parents know about their [child's] diagnosis, IEPs [individual education plans] and entitlements."

Lewis became involved with the center because of her experience raising five special-needs children.

"I saw how kids with special needs are looked at," Lewis said. "They were overlooked. They were not always given the appropriate chances. These children are beautiful wonderful children."

Civic learning

Josh Michael, a senior at Centennial High School and a student member on the state Board of Education, will share the stage with some of the most powerful decision-makers in the country tomorrow when he speaks in Washington to promote a civic learning initiative.

"It's important for the nation," Michael said. "The backbone of our country lies in civic learning. We need to instill civic involvement at a young age."

Michael, of Ellicott City, will join retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and former Colorado Gov. Roy Romer for the launch of the National Advisory Council for the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools.

The event will be held at 10 a.m. at the National Press Club.

Michael, who will give a three-minute speech, said there have been improvements made to encourage civic learning, but the nation still has some work to do.

Michael said the highlight of the day will be meeting O'Connor.

"It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said Michael, who was asked to speak by David Skaggs, director of the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools and former Colorado congressmen.


Glenelg Country School students are once again working the catwalk for charity.

Ten students were scheduled yesterday to walk the runway, prep models, sing and play musical instruments to fund college scholarships for underprivileged high school students in Washington.

The students were scheduled to showcase their magic at a fashion extravaganza held at the J.W. Marriott in Washington to benefit the Julia West Hamilton League, a nonprofit organization based in the nation's capital.

Students expected to participate included seniors Gwen Weaver, Caitlin Littlefield, Danielle McFall, Keith Adams, Erin Hilmar, Alex Spradling and Dan Medani and juniors Jemelle Williams, Jenny Moling and Anastasia Pasmanik.

In February, Glenelg Country students held a fashion show that raised nearly $3,000 for victims of Hurricane Katrina and the 2004 tsunami.

"I'm so proud of these students," said David Weeks, civic leadership director for the school who came up with the idea for the February event. "I'm proud of what they've accomplished, and I'm proud of their determination to extend themselves beyond Glenelg to express their talents."

Weeks said he was approached by Yolanda Voss -- owner of Yolanda Voss Studio International in Historic Savage Mill -- for help with yesterday's event.

"I think there is a wonderful spirit of support for this mission," Voss said. "I am totally impressed by this work."


While many school system employees sat back and relaxed last week during spring break, board members Diane Mikulis, Patricia Gordon and Mary Kay Sigaty went to school.

They joined an estimated 7,000 school board members from across the country at the National School Board Association annual conference in Chicago. Money from the school board travel budget was used to fund the trip.

Mikulis said she attended sessions on parliamentary procedure, board effectiveness, wellness policies and educational foundations.

"I got a lot out of the sessions," Mikulis said. "There were specific things that I will share with other board members and staff."

Mikulis said the most beneficial thing about the conference was learning about the procedures and hot topics in other systems.

"We're in very good shape," Mikulis said after talking to other board members from across the country. "Every one of our schools made AYP [adequate yearly progress]. We're certainly not all the way there. But we are heading in the right direction. We can put a lot of our time and effort in other things: culture proficiency, professional development."

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