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.

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