After 38 years of teaching and directing special education programs in West Michigan, Laurie VanderPloeg is looking forward to tackling the challenges of special education and sharing her experiences on a national stage.
Next month, VanderPloeg will become director of the Office of Special Education (OSEP), the agency within the U.S. Department of Education that serves and oversees special education programs throughout the country. The appointment was announced on Oct. 11.
It’s a “lifetime opportunity,” says VanderPloeg, who was first approached about the appointment in early August. Though she lives within a few miles of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s home in Ada, VanderPloeg says they are not acquainted and DeVos was not involved in the appointment process.
It’s the culmination of a career that began in the Lansing area, where she was inspired by her late mother, a special education teacher. “She was quite a good mentor, coach and role model for me to follow,” VanderPloeg says. “I’m sure she’s smiling now.”
Her appointment also brings a unique perspective to the federal agency. As the mother of a special needs child, VanderPloeg has been on the other side of the special education table. Her son, now 36, is “very challenged” with autism, hearing loss and significant mental health issues, she says.
“I think it’s helpful to look at the issues under the lens of a parent, not just the lens of an educator,” says VanderPloeg. “I intend to go in and ask a lot of ‘why’ questions.”
Once she moves into her new office inside the Department of Education, VanderPloeg says she hopes to address the national shortage of teachers and staff for special education. The shortage, which also affects general education classrooms, is critical because of the time and requirements needed for special education students, she says.
VanderPloeg says she will look at addressing the barriers to careers in special education, including the cost of college and education loans, low starting pay and workload issues. She says she also wants to address the negative coverage the teaching profession has received in the news media.
“I don’t think most people realize how hard teachers work and what it takes to be an effective teacher,” she says. “It requires a lot of time outside of the seven-hour instruction day.”
Kent ISD Superintendent Ron Caniff congratulated VanderPloeg, saying the attributes she brought to West Michigan will now be shared on a national stage.
“This is a remarkable opportunity that is so very well-deserved and earned. Our federal government absolutely picked the right person to lead special education for our country,” Caniff said.
VanderPloeg began her career as a special education teacher in Wayland Public Schools after graduating from Grand Valley State University in 1976. After teaching high-schoolers and middle-schoolers for 15 years, she returned to GVSU to earn her master’s degree in special education administration.
She has since served as supervisor of special education for the Grand Rapids Public Schools district, and special education consultant with the Michigan Department of Corrections. She has worked for the past 18 years as an administrator at Kent ISD. For the past eight years, she has been the director of the department, which serves 14,800 special needs students throughout Kent County.
VanderPloeg will be no stranger to Washington politics when she moves into her new office in the Department of Education’s headquarters building. She is president of the Council for Exceptional Children, past president of the Council of Administrators of Special Education (CASE) and past president of the Michigan Council for Exceptional Children. She also involved with the National Center for Charter Schools in Special Education Equity Coalition and the American Association of School Administrators.
Her honors and awards include the 2017 Michigan CEC Professional Service Award- Dr. William Cruickshank Award; the 2015 Harrie Selznick Distinguished Service Award; the 2014 Marvin Beekman Award for Administration and Leadership of Special Education Programs (MAASE); the 2011 Star Special Education Director, Special Ed. Connection, LRP Publications and the 2005 Murray Batten Award for Leadership, Honesty, Integrity, Dedication (MAASE).