District 91’s new school psychologist, Angelo Leo, is not overly concerned about the adjustment from working with high school students at Oak Park and River Forest High School to working with Forest Park’s elementary and middle school students.
“I was a little intimidated when I first started working with high schoolers, but one on one, they’re really just kids themselves. One on one, I never felt intimidated by even the worst gang-bangers,” she said.
Leo, a native of New York who was attracted to Forest Park’s small-town feel and its racial and economic diversity, compared her role at Dist. 91 to that of an “educational detective.” When a teacher reports that a student is struggling, she is responsible for determining, through a series of tests, whether the problems stem from learning disabilities, emotional disorders, or other factors.
She then determines, along with social workers, teachers and principals, whether the student is eligible for special ed services, and if so, to what extent.
She said the goal is to help students succeed with the least amount of special ed services possible. “Special ed operates under the philosophy of providing the least restrictive environment,” she said, so that students have the opportunity to take classes and interact with their peers.
“We try to modify the classroom environment so a child can be in classroom with everyone else and not fail due to distractions they have no control over,” she said.
She said she hopes to concentrate on classroom intervention strategies that will allow teachers to address students needs on their own. Special ed, she said, should be used only a last resort.
Leo joked that she stumbled on school psychology while “looking for something to do when I grew up.” She got her undergraduate degree at Fordham University in New York, and got a master’s in counseling from Queen’s College. After moving to Chicago and spending 10 years as a stay-home-mom, she attended Loyola University and got an MED specialist degree in School Psychology.
She then spent six years working at OPRF before coming to Dist. 91, where she will work under Special Ed Coordinator Rose Gronko.
Leo, who will do work in all five of Dist. 91’s schools, is replacing former school psychologist Lynn Wilkins.
Leo said her motivation is to ensure that all students receive the same treatment she demands for her own two sons.
We want to give them some kind of success. They spend a lot of days in school, and when they’re not doing well they’ve got everyone on their back”teachers, parents, peers”it’s a tough life, and we want to make it bearable and make them successful,” she said.