CLARKSBURG, Mass. — The Northern Berkshire School Union wasted no time last week in naming Tara Barnes as the union's new director of pupil services.
The Clarksburg School principal was the only applicant for the post but her candidacy was heartily welcomed by the NBSU Committee.
"I am so glad you applied for this," said Chairwoman Judy Oleson on inviting Barnes into her virtual interview.
Barnes arrived with a slide presentation on why she was ready to take this next step in her career, which began in teaching English in Japan in the mid-1990s. That was followed by nearly eight years in the Baltimore school district as a reading teacher and later professional development coordinator and dean of instruction.
She said she loved using visuals, a call back to her interview in 2015 at Clarksburg where she took the School Committee through a picture book she made outlining her career to that point.
That visualization started early in her career as she used images and movement and prompts to engage her students in Japan.
"I think that's particularly relevant to some of the ways we approach teaching and learning in the realm of special education," she said. "It's actually really good teaching for all students, but I think it it connects connects to special ed and some of the approaches we use."
Her understanding of special education, in which she is certified as an administrator of special education at the district level, was deepened in 2003 with the birth of her son, who has Down syndrome.
"I developed a very deep respect for the work that speech therapists and occupational therapists and physical therapists do and I also had to figure out how to become that at-home special educator on the fly," Barnes said. "I used a lot of those English language learners strategies of visuals and help date and by making picture books of the things in our house for language acquisition."
Her son is now a thriving 18-year-old and his upbringing had her learning how to be a parent and teacher in special education as well as learning from him. This, she said, gave her valuable insight from the parents' perspectives.
"I feel like these conversations and IEP meetings, I have that other vantage point," Barnes said. "Being an administrator, and in a meeting like this, I also really can understand the vulnerability of parents."
Barnes also spoke of the nearly $6 million in grants she'd written and co-written over the years. The bulk of the grants were for an innovative math program she'd worked on in Baltimore; there was also about $350,000 in federal grants for the school union, $57,000 in Safe Schools, science and math grants for Clarksburg, and $2,500 from the Mount Greylock Regional School District SEE and John Allen funds for Pals program, an inclusive sports program.
She said one of her takeways from Baltimore "was that when you don't have any resources, you have to hustle to find them and and or make them because we never give up on children. Or the challenges that they face."
In Clarksburg, she found herself in a very different position as the leader of a rural school, but still a school that is underresourced.
"We as rural schools get minimal state and federal funding, and we seem to have to find ways to make great educational experiences happen for children," Barnes said.
Cheryl Boillat, who has stepped in as interim director, asked Barnes what her vision was to support the special education staff and the children.
Barnes acknowledged that it had been hard for staff over the past couple years because of the limitations imposed by the pandemic.
"I think you miss something when you're not able to be in buildings, and my hope would be to be in buildings as much as I can possibly be," she said. "You have to be on site and supporting people as they're doing the work. And that's the best way I think to start to build those connections, relationships."
That includes finding ways to come together outside of the regular work day by utilizing professional development time and bringing staff together to plan and set agendas and troubleshoot.
As to where she might need help, Barnes said she would need more instruction on testing methodes. "I'm not afraid to aske for help. I'm not afraid to get training. I'm doing this for growth," she said. "That would be an area that I would expect to seek out professional development, to seek out colleagues in neighboring districts to network."
Many of the committee members' other questions were covered in Barnes' presentation though a few asked for her to expand on some areas. A vote was taken almost immediately afterward to appoint her to the post pending contract negotiations.
Barnes will replace Stephanie Pare, a former special education teacher at Gabriel Abbott Memorial School in Florida who was appointed in May 2020. Pare left for another position earlier this year.
"I feel like my path has led me through many different experiences and this position opening up at this moment in time, feels like it's the right time for me to expand some of my leadership skills and my experiences and knowledge in a bigger realm with more of the schools in the NBS Union and be able to work with more students and families and staff," Barnes said. "So that's why I would like to heartbreakingly leave Clarksburg but expand my reach hopefully with others and grow my network."