Laurie VanderPloeg, director of Special Education and Early Childhood at Kent ISD, is regarded as a superstar in her field. But her colleagues say she’s one of the biggest team players they know.
VanderPloeg traveled to San Diego, California over Spring Break to accept Harrie M. Selznick CASE Distinguished Service Award, the highest national honor given by the Council of Administrators of Special Education, an international organization that aims to improve and reinforce excellence in special education.
The award was established to recognize those who have been career-long leaders in the administration of special education programs and have made significant contributions to the field.
“The Selznik Award is such a fitting tribute to Laurie’s accomplishments,” said Kevin Konarska, Kent ISD Superintendent. “I’ve worked with Laurie on and off for more than 25 years. Her dedication and commitment to meeting the needs of students with learning challenges is unsurpassed. I rememberwhen she was in the classroom — her energy, passion and enthusiasm. It’s the same today as it was then, but now she’s making a difference on a larger scale. I’m so pleased to see her career of contribution to education recognized with this award.”
“What I Was Destined to Do”
VanderPloeg said she never considered a career other than one in special education. “That’s pretty amazing now that I think about it,” she acknowledged.
She credits her mother with setting the stage for her career, who started in the 1960s what would be one of the first resource room models for special education students in Lansing’s Waverly Public School District. VanderPloeg and her four siblings often tagged along to various school buildings while their mother prepared classrooms.
“When I (started college), I never explored any other option,” she recalled. “I always thought, ‘This is what I was destined to do.'”
VanderPloeg’s students and peers have long benefitted from that destiny as she has been a special education teacher at the middle school and high school and college and university levels, and her efforts have impacted special education policies, procedures and practices throughout Kent County and beyond.
For the past four years, a vast majority of new special education administrators in the state have spent a semester as students in VanderPloeg’s classes at Grand Valley State University, and last year she was named recipient of the Beekman Award from the Michigan Association of Administrators of Special Education for her administrative and leadership roles.
VanderPloeg began her career as a high school special education teacher at Wayland Union Schools. She moved to the Grand Rapids Public Schools District, where she served as Supervisor of Special Education. She also has been an adjunct professor in the Learning Disabilities Endorsement Program at Aquinas College and Special Education consultant with the Michigan Department of Corrections.
VanderPloeg has been with Kent ISD since 2000.
Many Hats, One Goal
In addition to representing CASE in a number of capacities including current past president, she also is past president of the Michigan Council for Exceptional Children, serves on the Kent County School-Justice Partnership Lead Team and has spoken to special education professionals around the country.
VanderPloeg’s most recent effort at Kent ISD: to raise high-school graduation rates among special education students. “Only a small percentage have a cognitive difficulty that would prevent them from graduating, so where are we missing the mark?” she said.
She’s mapping the data and has already identified some gaps, which she shared in a webinar she led earlier this year for 57 intermediate school districts.
“I can’t personally change the graduation rates, but I can certainly present the data that helps prompt changes to be made,” she said. “I’m just trying to empower (special education administrators) to be successful so their students can be successful.”
Grandville Public Schools Superintendent Ron Caniff has worked with VanderPloeg for nearly three decades. He said it’s difficult to come up with a single anecdote that describes her administrative style.
“At the local district level, we have so much respect and appreciation for Laurie VanderPloeg’s expertise when dealing with unique or challenging cases,” he said. “Whenever we find ourselves in over our head or encounter a hard to solve problem with a student’s placement in a special education program, the special education director and I quickly conclude that we need to call Laurie for guidance. She immediately offers multiple solutions that are ‘win-win’ based on what is in the best interest of the student receiving services.
“She has such an unassuming, non-threatening style,” Caniff continued, “and the depth of her experience is an invaluable asset to parents of children with special needs, as well as superintendents and special education directors throughout the county. She is very deserving of this honor.”
The CASE organization has nominated VanderPloeg for the J.E. Wallace Wallin lifetime achievement award from the Council for Exceptional Children.