When Dan Seklecki was a young special education teacher in 1975, education for all students was a new concept. There was a new federal law, a “zero reject” policy that entitled all children, regardless of their needs, to a free public education.
Before, “there were kids that were not served by the public schools or were served in very separate settings,” Mr. Seklecki recalled in an interview last week. “That’s almost inconceivable to us at this point. We just assume that all kids will come to public schools, and it’s our responsibility to understand and accommodate a variety of different learning profiles.”
In his role as director of student support services, Mr. Seklecki has spearheaded that effort for Vineyard public schools for the past 30 years. In July, he will retire from the job, where he worked to create educational support for all students.
Mr. Seklecki also has seen how the Vineyard community supports special education students, and how the field has changed over his tenure, starting with the “zero reject” approach. “Thirty years is a pretty short amount of time to create such a profound change,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is understand and enhance the learning environments and the capacities for all of those students who, a generation ago, maybe were not allowed in public schools, and that’s gigantic.”
On the Vineyard, each school in the public school system has a special education support system and integrated programs, so students with special needs are part of the normal classroom and receive supplementary support outside of class. Mr. Seklecki oversees a support system for students with physical, emotional, behavioral or learning needs, working with support staff including speech and language therapists, an autism specialist, school psychologists, early childhood specialists, occupational therapists and physical therapists, among others. He also checks in on the eight students who are currently at programs off-Island.
“It’s not predictable,” he said. “No two days are ever the same.”
The job description shifts along with the needs of the community. “The schools really have to develop the capacity to understand and meet the needs of those kids,” he said. Populations may shift, he said, “so you want to develop the capacity to respond to each and every one of them.”
“I think one of the quality indicators of a school system is its ability to deal with its most challenging students,” he said.
Mr. Seklecki said the highlight of his job is working directly with students. “My best part of the day is when I’m out of this place, as a matter of fact,” he said from his office in Vineyard Haven. Special education calls for heaps of paperwork and process, he said. “So you have to have a balance of understanding compliance but also really get to know your teachers and get to know your kids.”
That part is made easier with the Island community.“It’s a small enough place, and I’ve been here long enough to actually see young kids find their way through elementary schools and the high school and into adulthood, and that’s just a cool opportunity, to see someone who starts off as a three or four-year-old, and actually watch them walk across the stage next Sunday [at graduation] is a really cool thing to be able to do.”
During his tenure, Mr. Seklecki said the schools have created programs to work with new and growing groups of students.
“More students that we’ve identified on the autism spectrum is something all schools are dealing with in a more significant manner than we did, say, 10 years ago,” he said, a national trend that is seen on the Vineyard as well. So the school system has created supports for those kids, including a Bridge Program at the Edgartown school for kids with autism. The program may soon extend to other grades, he said.
“Evolutionary-wise . . . we’ve had to wrap our heads around kids with attention concerns or kids with medical concerns, kids with significant emotional and behavioral concerns,” he said.
He highlighted “a new and growing population of kids who have more significant, documented mental health concerns,” a challenging population to support, he said, and the high school is working with families and community service programs to create options for kids with social, emotional and behavioral concerns.
On Martha’s Vineyard, he said, “I think you see stresses.”
Part of this stems from “the ebb and flow of a Vineyard lifestyle,” Mr. Seklecki said, “where things get crazy this time of year and people are really beginning to work lots of hours and family connections change in the summertime . . . and then things may really slow down and work is less available.”
Additionally, “there’s a fair amount of concern with regard to kids with substance issues, kids who have experienced a variety of different trauma, from abuse, physical and emotional and sexual, and those kids are in our schools and need a very separate understanding and treatment in addition to continuing to move forward with their academic needs.
“Schools and community really have to be in sync in supporting those kids because treatment and getting healthy just doesn’t occur in any one environment. It takes multiple environments and many, many years.”
To that end, Mr. Seklecki said his office is part of a fabric of support for Island families, including partnerships with other organizations that support students and families. In the last few years, he said, “resources to families have been cut back on a local level and that certainly stresses the schools and the entire community infrastructure.”
Additionally, schools are facing outside funding cuts from a decade ago, with more competitive state and federal grants — schools are facing more competition for a smaller amount of money.
While the economy and Vineyard life pose special challenges, Mr. Seklecki said the Island is also a welcoming place where support for special education is strong at every level.
“I think the Vineyard itself is a place that can be very, very accepting for a variety of different learning profiles and strengths and weaknesses,” he said.
And as he prepares to retire at age 60, Mr. Seklecki said he is excited to see what the future holds for special education. “We’re just scratching the surface with what technology will afford all learners,” he said, citing new research about brain-based learning and how students learn. “The challenge is taking science and research and embedding that into the classroom.
“So I’m jealous of the next group of people already coming in here.”
Mr. Seklecki said he decided to retire while he was in good health and had the chance to embark on some new endeavors. His future plans won’t take him too far, though: his wife, Cathy MacDonald, works as a special education teacher at the Edgartown School. (Their son, Matt, lives in Vermont.)
The search for his replacement was a tough one. Mr. Seklecki first planned to retire in January, but the district’s search for someone to fill the role came up empty. A second search led the district to Lynn Silva, a Maine educator who will start on the job in July.
At Mr. Seklecki’s last All-Island school committee last week, he received a standing ovation,
“Time really rocks by . . . it has gone by so fast, it has been an absolutely wonderful experience,” he said. “I would not have traded it for anything.”
“I love this job. I’ve never once been bored in all of these years,” he said, praising the school administration. “Without that support and devotion, nobody sticks around in these jobs.”
In the future, he said, he’ll potentially work with the school district on special projects, and beyond that, he’ll see which way the wind blows. Perhaps he’ll find that wind on Vineyard waters.
“I’ve had a sailboat in somebody’s front lawn for the last three years. So there’s no excuse now for me not to put that thing in the water.”