skip to main content

Episode 4 – Special Education: No Two Students Learn the Same Way on the Same Day

March 16, 2023 | Season: 1 | Episode: 4 | 31 minutes

Today’s episode is about our Special Education program, a program providing a continuum of services for children from birth to age 21 with a wide range of individual needs.

Joining Dr. Martirano today will be the HCPSS Executive Director of Special Education, Dr. Terri Savage. For over 25 years, Dr. Savage has served special education students and their families both directly inside the classroom and via leadership roles across multiple counties in Maryland.

We hope you enjoy this conversation about our Special Education program.

← Additional episodes of Inside HCPSS


  • Dr. Terri Savage
    Executive Director, Special Education



Narrator: Welcome to the Inside HCPSS podcast, a podcast produced by the Howard County Public School System centered around conversations with HCPSS Superintendent, Dr. Michael J. Martirano.

Today’s episode is about our Special Education program, a program providing a continuum of services for children from birth to age 21 with a wide range of individual needs.

Joining Dr. Martirano today will be the HCPSS Executive Director of Special Education, Dr. Terri Savage. For over 25 years, Dr. Savage has served special education students and their families both directly inside the classroom and via leadership roles across multiple counties in Maryland.

We hope you enjoy this conversation about our Special Education program.

Dr. Martirano: Greetings, everyone. This is Dr. Martirano, Superintendent of Schools for the Howard County Public School System. Today, I’m extremely excited to continue in our podcast journey of providing information to our community about various facets of our school system. And today, I’m extremely excited about the opportunity to talk to our Executive Director of Special Education, Dr. Terri Savage. How are you today, Terri?

Dr. Savage: I’m doing great, Dr. Martirano.

Dr. Martirano: Great. And I’m so glad that you’re here. We have a good bit of time together today to inform our community about all the wonderful programs which we offer to our students. And I wanna shape and frame this from the acknowledgment of my philosophical belief that no two children learn the same way on the same day, and it is incumbent upon us to provide supports and additional instructional opportunities for students who require a different delivery model.

And that’s my whole outlook on the special education arena for our students. Creating a very inclusive nurturing opportunity for our students, working with our families as a very important partner in the educational journey, talking about how we scaffold supports as far as ongoing staffing, and what those challenges present us as opportunities to seek more funding as I always talk about addressing the needs of our most vulnerable children. So, the philosophical belief that all children can and will learn but require different levels of delivery is the whole process of how we approach our continuum of services for our students in Howard County.

So with that introduction, Dr. Savage, take us on a journey as far as understanding more deeply about what special education is. Many of our parents may or may not know the specifics and the significance of the programs that we put in place to address the needs of our students. So, just give us an overview of what special education is at that level.

Dr. Savage: Sure. So, first, we’ll start with what is special education. And we won’t go too technical with it. Special education, simple definition, the legal entitlement of students who have gone through a full team process, that includes parents, a full team process to determine whether or not a child requires specially designed instruction, very unique instruction that focuses on their strengths and needs. That’s a very simple definition.

Special education by design is supposed to provide that child with a free appropriate public education. And the way we do that is to make sure that we identify what those goals are, what the objectives are that we want that child to work on in the learning environments through something called an Individualized Education Program. That’s it at its simplest form.

Dr. Martirano: So you said a lot in terms of free and appropriate education, better known as FAPE. We’re notorious for our acronyms in education, but FAPE is very clearly defined as free and appropriate education. And the program of which you were just talking about to the IEP process, that is the Individualized Educational Plan for each one of our students who require the additional support is part of a process. So let’s go a little deeper with understanding what FAPE actually is, the free and appropriate education.

Dr. Savage: So, free, right, so at no cost to our parents. Appropriate, that’s as defined by a child’s IEP team, that Individualized Education Program team. Again, that includes our parents. So appropriate gets into, have we looked at all of that child’s data and the information about how that child learns, the parental input, a section of the IEP, the general education teachers input on that, special education, school psychologist.

All of those people come together and determine. They determine what’s appropriate for that child through the process and that gets documented. And then we deliver that program in public education in a multitude of different ways.

Dr. Martirano: Exactly. And there are a number of, you know, the iteration through the years of the delivery models. We subscribe to a model of full inclusivity in Howard County, with inclusive practices in ensuring that our children are receiving the highest quality education in the least restrictive environment that is inclusive. So, again, talk about what inclusive practices are and what the philosophy of inclusivity actually means.

Dr. Savage: Yeah. I love to have this conversation with community members, with parents, with our educators. We think about children who have different sets of abilities, I like to say sometimes, opposed to disabilities. We think about those children as general education students first. That’s their learning environment. That’s where the inclusivity is born.

We only remove that child from that classroom, that general classroom environment, when it’s absolutely necessary as defined by the IEP. That’s where least restrictive environment comes in, or LRE.

Dr. Martirano: Exactly.

Dr. Savage: So it’s different for different children. Sometimes we think about LRE as being in general ed, but really, it’s broader than that. One child’s LRE is not the same as another child’s LRE.

Dr. Martirano: Exactly. As the conversation is just beginning, my head is spinning with so much information to discuss. And we’re gonna try to segment this in a way for that total understanding. But as you just defined the process, earlier, you talked about the IEP. Let’s go into that a little more deeper. And then as we’re talking about that, I believe sometimes parents believe that this process begins when children are actually in school, beginning in grades K through 12 at some entry point. What a lot of individuals don’t know that our services begin at birth.

Dr. Savage: At birth.

Dr. Martirano: And the providing of the supports begins at birth. So tie in the establishment of an IEP development and as we look at the entry points for where our young people and our parents will engage if additional supports are needed.

Dr. Savage: Sure. And again, keeping it very simplistic. When children are born, if there are developmental needs that they have, we’re working with families very early on through school system offices that are set up for parents to be able to come into and share that maybe they suspect their child has needs, or even at the doctor’s office or the hospitals. Families get connected with us as soon as their children are born if there’s some indicator that that child may need some help because they are entitled to receive that help.

Children before they enter school up to a certain age, so let’s say birth to three, just to put it into containers here, the family would have what is called an Individualized Family Service Plan. So everything we do in early intervention is all about getting that child the access to the supports and the services that they need because our focus is always getting them ready for entry, getting them ready for kindergarten.

So at that early intervention level, we’re very focused on, what is it that we need to do more so with the family to become teacher in a variety of settings. So we go into their homes, we go into the community settings, we’re outside sometimes in parks working on so many different things around sometimes maybe tone, body tone. So you have your PTs, your OTs, your occupational therapist…

Dr. Martirano: We gotta define those terms.

Dr. Savage: …physical therapist, speech-language pathologist. We have the full complement who would be working with the family in those critical years.

Dr. Martirano: Absolutely. And, again, when we talk about the Individualized Educational Plan, better known as the IEP, that is an absolute collaborative process involving our staff, our parents, and constantly being monitored. So give some examples of what would be contained in an IEP.

Dr. Savage: Sure. So in the Individualized Education Program, or IEP, you’ll have a variety of sections or components. So, you’re going to have information in there, first and foremost, from the parent because that is a process. Every time we meet, we are gathering parental input. So, you’ll have the parental input. You’ll have information in a child’s IEP about their performance on assessments.

You’ll have information about their present levels of academic achievement and functional performance, so how are they performing right now against the grade-level content standards? All of that information is there for a reason because remember what I said earlier, the child is in general education, that’s the expectation, until there’s a need for them to be pulled out or to receive services in a different model.

So they have goals in the IEP. They have objectives in the IEP. They have something called accommodations in the IEP. And you wrap it up with, “Okay, we have all of these things, how many hours do we think that we need to work on that child’s specially designed instruction?” And those things drive the child’s placement.

Dr. Martirano: Exactly. So, as we think about this, there are teams set up in our schools that include a number of different staff members, educators, different levels of involvement, and all coming together in the best interest of the child, and the supports that are provided vary depending upon the individual needs. Is that a correct assessment?

Dr. Savage: Absolutely.

Dr. Martirano: And so as we look at this Individualized Educational Program, there is a level of legality associated with that, too. I always tell our parents and our community and our board members and elected officials, that is a legal document that once signed and agreed to, that we have to provide the support and assistance for our young people who require additional support. Talk about that as well.

Dr. Savage: That’s right. I said it earlier, it’s a legal entitlement.

The children who receive special education services, they’re entitled to those services through the IEP team process. So there’s no going around it, right? We need to make sure we know what it is and we are aware of how to implement it, and that we are implementing it. And when things are going great, we build upon those things. We wanna always focus on that child’s strengths and what we need to do to address the challenges that they may have. So, it’s a fluid document. We don’t just come to the table one time, we come to the table as much as we need to to ensure that that child is receiving what they’re entitled to.

Dr. Martirano: And again, I wanna emphasize different entry points. We have a birth through 21 program that exists, and there’s different levels of entry points when there’s emergence of needs for more supports. And that engagement occurs at the school house for further conversation with parents.

And the complete philosophy that I wanna really emphasize is the parents as our partners. I’ve been doing this work with our special education community at a high level of intensity and focus for a number of years and always embraced the philosophy as the parents as a major partner in that. Let’s go into some specifics about the role that the parent has in the process of the development of the actual IEP and the ongoing supports as we look at progress monitoring and evaluation and progress. Continue on that topic.

Dr. Savage: Yes. Parents and caregivers, critical, critical to the IEP process. We have to have our parent voice in the mix and student voice in the mix also. When they become of age where they can tell us what things work well for them and where we may deem to do a better job, we want their voice in the process, too. And, in fact, that’s a legal requirement. When they reach a certain age, they are involved in that process. And so we want our parents to provide us with information in a continuous manner.

And yet, sometimes we need to do that job of educating the parent in the process because our parents are at the table with us. They want the same things we want for their children. And we need to take a step back sometimes and make sure that our parents feel empowered to bring their voice to the table, that they feel equipped to bring certain ideas to the table. And so we’re preparing our parents to serve in that role as an integral, a critical, essential member of the IEP team.

Dr. Martirano: Absolutely. And, you know, once again, as I talk about my philosophy as leader of this organization, I’m always doing more and more to provide more supports to our most vulnerable children. And the engagement with our parents is absolutely critical in a non-adversarial way. And I wanna talk about that, you know, to the extent where these can become very tense processes.

And we always have to lead with love, care, and compassion of seeking to understand the needs, first and foremost, of our student, working with our parent to provide all the necessary supports for the child. So, talk about that process and how we approach it with our philosophy of total engagement in a non-adversarial way.

Dr. Savage: Yeah. So here in our school system, as I’m hopeful our teams and our community know at this point, we have very simple commitments. We call them the 3Cs. We talk about our 3Cs, meaning collaborative, being compliant, and doing all things always in a courteous manner. Before we enter into all of the procedures and the requirements, we’re all about trying to build the relationship. So I say a lot of times, relationships before requirements, partnership before procedures.

Dr. Martirano: I love that.

Dr. Savage: Right? Connection before content. Because once we establish that, when we get into those tough conversations, or the tense moments, or the periods of misunderstanding, we have that relationship and the trust…

Dr. Martirano: And the trust. I mean, I’ve just blurted it out.

Dr. Savage: …that you can rely upon to move on behalf of the child together. And together is another one of our simple commitments. It’s on the back of the t-shirt I’m wearing. And, you know, I’m paraphrasing Helen Keller, “Together, we can do more than we could ever do alone.”

These are all those simple commitments that are at the core of what we do.

Dr. Martirano: I mean, there’s so much to take away from this interaction today, but those 3Cs that you’ve just talked about are absolutely important for our community to understand our total commitment in a child-centered school system that focuses on the strengths that we all bring to the table for the betterment of each child within our school system.

And then identified further through the IEP process, the Individualized Educational Program, that has the documented goals and progress monitoring to assure that what we are saying we’re going to do actually occurs so that we can see the movement and the growth for each and every one of our children. And as I stated, no two children learn on the same way on the same day, and, again, that incumbency on the fact of keeping that close to that process.

And, again, Dr. Savage, I mean, you have been a master at really providing the philosophical beliefs and the communication to our parents about that partnership. And the number of years that I’ve been working with our parents in our community, the trust and the collaboration and the supports are absolutely essential for the betterment of the child. And so I’m so glad to hear you frame it the way that you did.

Let’s shift a little bit to some of the technical components because, you know, I firmly believe that Howard County provides some outstanding support, so I’m very proud of our special education program. And the students that we have within our school system want to feel included and supported. So, again, how do we provide awareness for all of our children to be accepting and inclusive in our processes within our schools? So talk about that.

Dr. Savage: I’ll start by saying together, that’s how we’re going to do it. It is the job, it is the expectation for all of us to work together to figure out how to build that awareness. And I like to go beyond awareness and talk about disability acceptance. It means one thing for me to be aware of a child’s IEP, or their needs, or those documented goals, and whatnot. It’s a different level when I’m actively doing something to ensure that that child has a sense of belonging in that classroom community, that they feel a part of the school community.

And so we do provide professional learning for our special education staff. We are beginning to do even more with our general education teachers as well and everybody else in the school building. Our bus drivers, we have to do training for them, our lunchroom monitors, our administrators. So we are working steadily on providing a more robust training model for everybody trying to work with us together to create that sense of belonging.

Dr. Martirano: So acceptance and awareness, awareness and acceptance, and working very hard every day for our entire student body for the level of acceptance in a total inclusive environment where everyone is valued. My passion just spills over when we start talking about this, that every child should feel included and a part of the learning process as we provide additional supports and in creating a nurturing environment and in a supportive environment for all of our young people who are part of the community. And that is daily work within the school system. I can surely attest to that.

Now, I’m very aware of the budgetary requirements as well. And one of the pieces of information that I’m extremely proud of is our total work together to provide increased levels of staffing over a sustained number of years to provide supports because these supports are required, they are needed, but also they have a budgetary requirement that goes along with that. Talk about the variety of staffing that we have within our schools that have budgetary implications that are essential that provides the supports for our students.

Dr. Savage: Sure. So I will put it into two containers, one, the staffing at the schoolhouse, and then also the staffing model that we have at our central office. So in the schoolhouse, again, I mentioned we have a full complement of staffing resources that serve our children and their families.

Dr. Martirano: Correct.

Dr. Savage: And so we provide special education teachers. We have a host of paraprofessionals out there that work with small groups of students as well as…

Dr. Martirano: And everyone does an amazing job, right?

Dr. Savage: Everyone does a fantastic job!

Dr. Martirano: Paras are amazing!

Dr. Savage: An awesome team. We also have related service providers, so we have our speech-language pathologist, we have occupational therapist, we have physical therapist, we have school psychologist. We could go on. There are many different providers who have a specific and unique area of expertise. And we have to be ready because we don’t know what needs the child may present with, so we have to have those resources ready.

If you have a child who has visual impairments, well, you’re going to need staff who also can engage in that teaching and learning process for that child. At the central level, while we’re building our flexible service delivery models in our school houses, whether they be at the comprehensive school or at some of our regional sites, we need experts at central office who can support those teachers, people like behavior specialists, our central office resource teachers, instructional facilitators, and I could go on.

We’re all in place because we recognize that we don’t just go into this field and say, “Yep, we’ve got our education, we’re done.” It is an ongoing process to make sure that we stay current in the promising practices, that we get real-time on time professional learning whenever we need it so that that child is never missing for anything.

Dr. Martirano: That’s exactly right. And it’s a highly technical field that has that need for ongoing professional development. There’s so many things to talk about today, and the relationship right now to the importance of the staffing is absolutely important as defined by the IEP, that is a legal mandate that we have to provide the supports, but it also gets back to the focus on the continuum of services. And if you would just illuminate that and amplify that a little further to provide a brief overview of that and how we operate in the area of continuum of services.

Dr. Savage: Sure. Just briefly talking about a continuum or an array of service delivery models. Remember, I discussed earlier about least restrictive environment and how some students may spend more time in the general education environment than others. And so through the IEP team process, when it is recognized that a student may need more services or more supports or different types of services and supports, we are legally required to have a continuum of services.

Dr. Martirano: Correct.

Dr.Savage: Sometimes those services may be in that child’s school, sometimes those services may be in the county, but we are obligated to make sure that all children with an IEP get that free appropriate public education. And so we have to have a continuum of supports. So we do have some regional or specialized programs that serve our children with very specific needs, and we also have public separate day schools within our county that also serve the needs of children who may need even more time away from the general curriculum than others.

Dr. Martirano: Absolutely. Dr. Savage, we’re covering a lot of ground and the time is moving quickly overall. And, you know, I wanna reflect back on the continuum of services to something that you had said that this is a dynamic fluid process. And we’re constantly making adjustments within that continuum of services to provide needed supports as our young people continue to move through our school system. And that’s also very invigorating and very engaging with our parents.

I wanna end this segment that has gone by way too fast around the topic of parents. I mean, I’ve emphasized it several times throughout this interaction, and the role that we need to also advance and amplify our support for parents. Let’s talk about the ways of which we support our parents and available resources for them.

Dr. Savage: Yeah. Every time you mention this, I’m like, “Yes, he’s on my street now.” So, we do a lot around parent involvement, and engagement, and participation. We work with our community partners to do that. So, here in Howard County, we have our Howard County Autism Society, we have our Special Education Citizens Advisory Committee, and we have parents who just call in with great ideas, or they like to meet in small groups and tell us what’s working well and what’s not working well. And that’s what I love.

Dr. Martirano: Exactly. Exactly.

Dr. Savage: Give me the things that could help…

Dr. Martirano: The feedback.

Dr. Savage: …us with our continuous improvement efforts. And so our work with parents, it’s through conversation, it’s through accessible workshops that we provide through our Family Support and Resource Center. We partner with not just the organizations that I mentioned, but also Parents’ Place of Maryland to provide different opportunities for parents to become involved.

We have our Parent Empowerment Conference that we started during your tenure to be able to get parents in the space with us. And some of our parents even lead those sessions now, so we’re excited about that.

Dr. Martirano: Exactly. They lead the sessions, and that’s what we want. And I’ve attended several of those.

Dr. Savage: And our website.

Dr. Martirano: The website.

Dr. Savage: Our website also includes great parent resources. We titled them Behavior Talks, and we started them during virtual schooling. We have a listing of different topics there as well.

Dr. Martirano: Dr. Savage, it has become extremely apparent during this episode of my podcast on this topic that I could probably have five additional topics that have now been connected to this today. And the time has gone by so quickly. But we do leave with the understanding today that we’ve covered a lot of ground, that my philosophy of a total inclusive environment for our children is just essential for the daily work of which we do, doing that in a way where we convey authentic and genuine love, care, and compassion, making certain that our parents feel the complete level of partnership in the process as we provide supports for each one of our young people within our school system. And so I’m very proud of our efforts, and it’s an ongoing continuous improvement effort.

So, I thank you today. My guest today has been Dr. Terri Savage, our Executive Director of Special Education. And I wanna especially thank all of our special educators within our school system community, who provide such great supports for our children every day.

Narrator: And thank you for joining us and listening to this podcast episode. Stay tuned to future episodes this season where we’ll continue to discuss topics related to the school system and our terrific students and staff.

To learn more about our Special Education program, our Behavior Talks video series, and the Family Support and Resource Center, visit

If you liked this episode of Inside HCPSS, please subscribe to the podcast in your favorite podcast program or share an episode online at Talk to you soon.