Marysville special-ed director leaving ‘most rewarding’ job

MARYSVILLE — Three years ago, the Marysville School District turned to a Marine Corps veteran to try and fix the problems in its special education program.

James Stevens had other credentials, too. He’d led the special education program in the Eastmont School District, in East Wenatchee, for five years. He’s also a nationally certified school psychologist.

Stevens has announced he’s leaving the district as of June 30. He’s going to be replaced by Ginger Merkel, currently the Director of Elementary Special Education, who joined the district at the same time as Stevens.

“In my mind that provides some continuity,” Stevens said. “She’s been part of that problem-solving process for years, so that helps.”

In 2014, the district had been dealing with a number of complaints from parents who said their special-needs children weren’t being provided services they needed.

The district’s co-directors of the Special Education Services department, Ken Chovil and Tracy Suchan Toothaker, both resigned midyear with less than 24 hours’ notice. Interim directors were hired to finish out the school year.

“I think it’s fair to say there was a decent amount of tumult when I arrived,” Stevens said.

Out of a student population of about 10,600, there are 1,529 students from kindergarten through 12th grade who qualified for special education services this year. That’s about 14.4 percent of the student body, compared to the statewide average of 13.5 percent as of May 2016.

Stevens quickly put into place some practices designed to give parents and staff more open channels of communication with the district administration.

It’s simply a matter of good customer service, Stevens said.

“Everyone should be going out of their way to help everyone at all times, that’s parents and students and staff,” he said.

The changes were noticeable. Amy Sheldon, a longtime officer of the Special Education Parent Advisory Council, said that the district as a whole has improved over the years.

“With James, he’s had an open-door policy, he’s very easy to reach,” she said.

“Sometimes educators think they always know best, but sometimes it benefits to hear from the parents of their students,” Stevens said.

Other changes he put into place were more structural. Some of the special needs programs were centralized, with kids receiving much if not all their education in self-contained classrooms, sometimes even at a different location than their local school. That might have created some efficiency, but it isolated those kids from the wider community.

“There was a fairly obvious need when I arrived that Marysville was not doing nearly as good as it should have in integrating special education students into the general population,” Stevens said.

Sheldon had that issue with her niece, who lives with autism. The girl had been in a self-contained classroom at Kellogg Marsh Elementary.

“We’ve been able to fight to get her (general education) time also so she’s with peers her own age,” Sheldon said.

In Stevens’ second year on the job he started unwinding some of that centralization. Three classrooms at Kellogg Marsh and two at Marshall Elementary that had been dedicated to special education services were closed, and 50 students were returned to their neighborhood schools to receive their needs through a specialist there.

“Honestly, it was the most rewarding thing I did in my entire career,” Stevens said.

He also set about introducing standardized writing and reading curricula for special-needs teachers, not only to assess student progression, but to take some of the burden of creating classroom materials off the shoulders of the teachers.

Stevens has not announced where he is going next. He said he and his wife were exploring options outside Marysville.

“My heart’s in education, so I’m definitely staying there, but I’m not currently disclosing what the position is,” he said.

Chris Winters: 425-374-4165; Twitter: @Chris_At_Herald.

Talk to us

More in Local News

Marysville firefighters respond to a 12-year-old boy who fell down a well Tuesday May 30, 2023 in Marysville, Washington. (Photo provided by Marysville Fire District)
Marysville firefighters save boy who fell 20 feet into well

The 12-year-old child held himself up by grabbing on to a plastic pipe while firefighters worked to save him.

Highway 9 is set to be closed in both directions for a week as construction crews build a roundabout at the intersection with Vernon Road. (Washington State Department of Transportation)
Weeklong closure coming to Highway 9 section in Lake Stevens

Travelers should expect delays or find another way from Friday to Thursday between Highway 204 and Lundeen Parkway.

Students arriving off the bus get in line to score some waffles during a free pancake and waffle breakfast at Lowell Elementary School on Friday, May 26, 2023, in Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
800 free pancakes at Everett’s Lowell Elementary feed the masses

The annual breakfast was started to connect the community and the school, as well as to get people to interact.

Marysville Mayor Jon Nehring speaks at the groundbreaking event for the I-5/SR 529 Interchange project on Tuesday, May 23, 2023 in Marysville, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
$123M project starting on Highway 529 interchange, I-5 HOV lane

A reader wondered why the highway had a lane closure despite not seeing work done. Crews were waiting on the weather.

Justin Bell was convicted earlier this month of first-degree assault for a December 2017 shooting outside a Value Village in Everett. (Caleb Hutton / Herald file)
Court: Snohomish County jurors’ opaque masks didn’t taint verdict

During the pandemic, Justin Bell, 32, went on trial for a shooting. Bell claims his right to an impartial jury was violated.

Gary Fontes uprights a tree that fell over in front of The Fontes Manor — a miniature handmade bed and breakfast — on Friday, May 12, 2023, at his home near Silver Lake in Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Everett’s mini-Frank Lloyd Wright builds neighborhood of extra tiny homes

A tiny lighthouse, a spooky mansion and more: Gary Fontes’ miniature world of architectural wonders is one-twelfth the size of real life.

Will Steffener
Inslee appoints Steffener as Superior Court judge

Attorney Will Steffener will replace Snohomish County Superior Court Judge Janice Ellis, who is retiring in June.

News logo for use with stories about Mill Creek in Snohomish County, WA.
Police: Mill Creek man fatally stabbed wife amid financial woes

After quitting his job at Amazon, the man amassed about $50,000 in debt, triggering a discussion about finances, he told police.

Outside of the current Evergreen Recovery Centers' housing to treat opioid-dependent moms with their kids on Thursday, May 25, 2023 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
$8M in behavioral health grants to benefit children, youth, families

Snohomish County awarded one-time federal funding to five projects that will reach at least 440 new people each year.

Most Read