Though Rose Gronko, the new director of Special Education for District 91, is always seeking new challenges, a part of her will always miss the classroom.

“What I miss about teaching is the power you have to make kids feel great. You lose that when you leave a classroom, and that’s something I miss a lot. Teachers are absolutely the most powerful people around,” she said.

Her new position is largely administrative, but Gronko still plans to bring a hands-on approach. She promised to learn the names of all 118 students in the district’s special education programs by the end of the year, and hopes to build close relationships with each of the teachers she oversees.

The most important element of special education, she said, is to focus on students’ abilities rather than their disabilities.

“Students are entitled to their right to be given an equal education, whether in special education or regular education,” she said.

Gronko said she was attracted to Forest Park because its program, designed in part by recently retired Special Education Coordinator Jeannie Eichorst, does just that.

Gronko was most impressed by the degree of collaboration between regular education and special education teachers as well as the efforts to put students in as many regular classes as possible in addition to their self-contained classes in areas where they need assistance. “I think this whole idea of inclusion is a positive. I think when regular ed kids look at them, they see that they aren’t very different from themselves, that there are much more similarities than differences,” she said.

Gronko also admired the degree to which special education programs in Forest Park are custom-suited to individual students. When a student tests into special education, she said, employees from several departments including social workers, psychologists, speech and language teachers, and, if necessary, nurses, get together to discuss a course of action for that particular child.

“It really is a comprehensive process,” she said.

Other new staff members this year who will work with children in special education include fifth grade teacher Lester Dudlo, second grade teacher Abigail Rosenberger, psychologist Angela Leo and diagnostic resource consultant Becky Foster.

The department includes nine teachers, three diagnostic resource consultants, and 14 staff members, according to Superintendent Randolph Tinder.

Though Gronko said her goal for this year is to learn the Forest Park system and study the curriculum and programs instituted by her predecessor, her long-term vision for the district includes increasing its capacity to handle students with severe disabilities.

“I’d love to keep as many kids as possible in Forest Park,” she said.

According to Tinder, 28 of the district’s special education students are sent outside the district.

Gronko said she would also like to institute some proven learning methods, including SLANT, a structured language training and reading program that allows teachers to intervene at an early age when a child is having trouble reading.

“It’s very sequential, which is good for our kids. It also emphasizes reading comprehension … a lot of programs will teach decoding but won’t teach comprehension,” she said.

Gronko grew up in Cicero, spent her undergraduate years at Northern Illinois University, and then got a master’s in Special Education and Elementary Education from National Louis University. She attained her Type 75 administrative certificate at Lewis University in Romeoville.

Before coming to Forest Park, Gronko spent most of her career in Cicero where she worked as both a regular education and special education teacher as well as a PH itinerant and a program supervisor for low-incident children.