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Sliwa to begin trial run as special education director

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AYER — Longtime Director of Special Education Dr. William Towne retired this year, said Superintendent of Schools Dr. Lore Nielsen, leaving the district with “leadership challenges” to address.

With an empty seat to fill and special education issues in the spotlight, Nielsen and the School Committee decided to treat the situation as an opportunity to reorganize the department. She said the creative regrouping they came up with is the start of a “more effective and efficient” system.

Pivotal to the rehabilitation plan is Roslyn Sliwa, an educational team leader who’s been with the system for seven years. Sliwa has been tapped as the interim director of special education and given a one-year contract.

Russell Durling, a retired special education expert whom Sliwa has worked with before, has also been hired to help with the transition.

Working two days per week, Durling will help head the department as it morphs and mentor Sliwa as she grows into the job. The plan is to review her performance during the year and determine whether the fit is right, Nielsen said. If not, Sliwa has the option of returning to her previous position.

Sliwa sketched her résumé at the May 23 School Committee meeting. As a preschool teacher for the Head Start Program in Worcester for four years, she worked with special needs students in housing projects and developed a program for youths in residential care and those who were incarcerated, she said.

She’s had experience with a school in transition, she said, working in Leominster the year the district reorganized its special education services. Later, she was a program coordinator at Nashoba Regional School District and an inclusion specialist for the Fitchburg, Leominster, Lancaster and Clinton (FLLAC) collaborative.

She was hired here as team chairman seven years ago, she said, and as numbers have risen, her duties have expanded. She worked with kindergartners to 12th-graders until her job switched to early childhood coordinator this year.

In addition, she said she’s taken on, along with Dr. Nielsen, the position of out-of-district chairperson.

But she’s never run the whole show before, and at least one School Committee member is worried about that.

“I was afraid we might be setting you up for failure,” said Cheryl Simmons, who interviewed Sliwa for the new job.

That’s where Durling comes in.

Durling initially applied for the special education director’s job. According to his résumé, he is a master’s level, state-certified special education instructor and administrator with 32 years of experience in the field.

As special education coordinator for an administrative unit consisting of five school districts in Wilton, N.H., Durling set up and ran the first in-district special education program. He was chairperson of the junior/senior high school special needs program for the North Middlesex Regional School District from 1979 to 1982 and a learning disabilities teacher before that.

He also served as school supervisor for Wediko Children’s Services, a small nonprofit residential treatment program in New Hampshire.

In the Littleton public schools, he was the director of pupil services and coordinator of system support services, respectively.

For the last five years, he’s been assistant the special education director for the Fitchburg school district. His multi-page résumé also lists educational credentials and professional accomplishments.

He summarized his cover letter and explained why a part-time job works for him now. After a heart attack last year, Durling said he had open-heart surgery that “didn’t work as well” as he’d hoped. Doctors said he must cut his 50-hour-per-week work schedule, he said.

He described himself as a “highly organized professional ” who sets clear priorities, forms close working relationships with administrators and staff, and enjoys “individual contact” with students and their families.

“I have the experience and skills necessary to be successful in any special education administration position,” he said.

His new employers agree he’s right for the job. Committee members said they’re glad to have him aboard.

“Welcome,” said Viola Barnes.