Meeting the needs of all children at SWS
With the echoes of children playing outside, Melissa Brisbane sits at a large wooden conference table and recalls how she felt at this year’s first all-student-and-staff assembly. Looking out at the sea of students and the 60-plus member staff, Ms. Brisbane was amazed and floored. She could remember when SWS was a staff of only a few teachers, sitting at that very same conference table in a much smaller room on the top floor of Peabody Early Childhood. At those meetings, they would talk about growing the Reggio approach upward and envisioned the school through fifth grade. “Wouldn’t it be great?” they all thought.
Now Ms. Brisbane feels lucky to have seen their vision come to fruition. “I feel like this work is really valid. The opportunity to watch kids matriculate from three years old to fifth grade, it’s a joy to see.”
Long history with SWS and its approach to special education
She first started at the school in 2002, working alongside Louise Chapman as a teaching assistant for two years while earning her first Master’s degree in social work. After a brief hiatus in which she opened up a public charter school and earned a second Master’s degree in early childhood special education, she happily returned to the school in 2009.
As the school’s first full-time special education teacher, Ms. Brisbane helped shape the unique approach to the special education program at SWS. Since the school started as a preschool-based program, much of the approach was focused on early intervention – looking at children as whole people and their development to see where they are on par with their peers and where they need strengthening. The staff have grown this approach upwards as the school expanded into elementary grades. She and the school staff have worked hard to make it be normal to think about kids sensory systems, what stimulates them and what brings them down, and how teachers can make shifts in the classroom environment to help students better able to access what is being taught.
Now the school has a continuum of special education services from kindergarten through fifth grade. It “has really become a part of who we are as a school, recognizing that everybody has different strengths and areas of weakness and better filling in the range of what atypical and typical development looks like….when we generalize some of the strategies in the classroom environment that we use for kids [in the special education program], it makes a better experience for everybody in the room.” Meeting the needs of children and their families who need additional support throughout their elementary school experience has been one of her greatest joys during her tenure with the school.
The school’s first full-time Assistant Principal
Ms. Brisbane was hired as the school’s first full-time Assistant Principal (AP) of Special Education and Operations in 2016. In this role, she continues to work with the special education team to train teachers, meet compliance goals, and ensure the school is meeting the needs of children and families. As the Assistant Principal, she also manages building operations and works with the Department of General Services and the environment committee on building repairs and updates.
Ms. Brisbane also speaks about her commitment to diversity across the board. She is proud of the medical and special education supports classrooms and the opportunity for SWS students to see a kind of diversity first-hand that most people never get to see – diversity of ability. She wants to help students see children with physical disabilities as human beings and set students up so that there isn’t fear or concern when meeting people who are different from them. Ms. Brisbane is also working with the diversity committee to ensure all backgrounds – linguistic, ethnic, racial, and class diversity – are represented and to continue to create a sense of community in the city-wide school.