New Special Education Director steers Liberty Hill program toward inclusion

Elyse Tarlton was named LHISD Special Education Director in January. (Dana Delgado Photo)

Elyse Tarlton was named LHISD Special Education Director in January. (Dana Delgado Photo)

By Dana Delgado

Elyse Tarlton, who was named Special Education Director for the Liberty Hill Independent School District in January, is so glad to be home. She’s got a life again.

As Special Education Director at Waco ISD before moving to LHISD, she was tasked with overseeing special education programs at 26 schools. That and the daily commute to Waco made for very long days. But they were not long days merely because of the volume of work; they were long because of her commitment and dedication to her profession.

The New Jersey native got her degree in psychology from the University of Delaware. It was at an interview while touring a class with autistic children, that she was intrigued by special education and the possibility of pursuing it as a career.

Mrs. Tarlton would take a special education teaching position with Houston ISD where she honed her skills in a variety of classrooms and settings for students with disabilities. The assignment sparked an interest in graduate studies. She earned her Master’s Degree in Administration from Texas A&M University and worked at the Texas Education Agency in the Special Education Department from 2006-11. She followed her assignment at the state agency with a stint at Waco ISD from 2011-14 as the Director before accepting the Directorship position at Liberty Hill ISD.

“I love it here,” she said. “There’s a wonderful culture and climate here at Liberty Hill.”

With the move to LHISD, Mrs. Tarlton has a little bit more time on her hands.

Not that she doesn’t have enough to do. Mrs. Tarlton has plenty. She just has fewer schools to oversee and doesn’t have to make the long commute to Waco.

The new LHISD Special Education Director has had the time to get to know the students by name and she says it’s been “terrific.” She has also met some of the parents and is looking forward to establishing a partnership with all of them.

“I like to develop good, strong relationships with parents,” Mrs. Tarlton said.  “Even if we have differences, we can work it out with discussion.”

She said that parents can expect communications with the district way before formal meetings take place.

“My team and I are accessible,” she said.  “We are here to serve the community.”

As a parent of two children with disabilities, Mrs. Tarlton has unique insight, experience and understanding of the special education process and programming.

“Our job is to do what’s best for the student based on the data,” she said.

After taking some time to meet her staff which has impressed her and review the programs at the various schools, Mrs. Talton has rolled up her sleeves and has set into motion her plans to advance special education programs at LHISD.  She says her actions are principally designed to steer special education programs towards inclusion and to develop consistency across the district.

“I’m very pro-inclusion but it is a continuum of support with the goal being to have students in the mainstream,” she said. “Inclusion benefits everybody.”

Mrs. Tarlton explained inclusion as the process where students with disabilities are moved more and more into regular education classes with special education support. The Director said it will also involve co-teaching by the regular education and special education teachers working collaboratively in the regular education classroom.

The initiative, according to Director Tarlton, will require extensive professional development for teachers. That training is expected to get underway this summer.

Another initiative involves the establishment of a behavioral program at the junior high school that will expand into the high school.

In addition, a new Life Skills program will be introduced at the intermediate school next year. Plans are also underway to have a gardening space for students in the Life Skills program upon which they could possibly host or participate in a farmers market.

To build consistency in the district’s special education programs, Mrs. Tarlton is moving to contract out less work to professionals outside of the district and hire permanent staff. The positions for a deaf education teacher, a life skills teacher, a physical therapist, a lead Licensed Specialist in School Psychology, and an adaptive physical education teacher were approved by school trustees May 19, and the positions will be filled for the coming school year.  The adaptive physical education teacher will also serve as the district’s Special Olympics coordinator, a first for the district. Bowling is projected as the first event as part of this program.

“Special Olympics is a wonderful program for students and the community,” Mrs. Tarlton said.  “It’s such a wonderful experience for everyone.”

Working closer to home, Mrs. Tarlton said she has enjoyed reconnecting with her own four children — Quinn, Ethan, Brenna, and Gabriel. Quinn and Ethan attend Rouse High School in the Leander Independent School District where the family lives while Brenna and Gabriel have followed their mother to LHISD. Both attend Burden Elementary School.

Unquestionably, Mrs. Tarlton is playing catch-up on all her children’s activities including Girl Scouts and soccer and a multitude of school activities as well as helping look after their menagerie of pets including two birds, two dogs, a cat and some fish. She’s dusted off her binoculars and is bird watching again; this time she is doing her former pasttime with her daughter Brenna who has taken an interest in identifying birds. While she was with Waco ISD, her husband George, a math teacher with Georgetown ISD, handled many of the activities with their children.

Mrs. Tarlton has also taken up gardening with a particular interest in herbs and is really excited about this new venture.  And in that rare quiet moment at home, she loves to read 18th Century romance novels.

Besides her extensive work in advancing the special education program and re-introduction to her family, Mrs. Tarlton is working to complete her doctoral degree at Texas A&M University. She said that her former professor, Dr. Luana Zelmer, now at Stephen F. Austin University, encouraged her to get her PHD. Her dissertation’s focus is the impact of Response to Intervention (RTI) and how it has changed educational practices.  RTI is the process by which each public school in the state identifies academically struggling students and addresses their needs with a variety of tiered strategies.