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RISD’s Lawson honored as ‘administrator of the year’

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Sonia Lawson, Roswell Independent School District’s assistant superintendent of special academic services, has received the Maggie Cordova ‘2019 Administrator of the Year’ award for her efforts in advocating for special education. (Alison Penn Photo)

Award recognizes creation of inclusive environments for students

Sonia Lawson, assistant superintendent of special academic services for Roswell Independent School District, received the “2019 Administrator of the Year” award, also known as the Maggie Cordova Award, from New Mexico Council of Administrators of Special Education (NMCASE).

On July 25, Lawson and 11 other educators were honored at a dinner and their awards were presented by the New Mexico Coalition of Educational Leaders (NMCEL) in Albuquerque.

Christina Velasquez, president of the NMCASE board of directors, wrote in a statement to the Daily Record that the award Lawson received “was renamed 12 years ago to honor Maggie Cordova,” a special education director in Rio Rancho “who dedicated her life’s work to creating equity and access for all students regardless of disability.”

Lawson has been in her position at RISD, where she oversees special services and curriculum and instruction, for three years, and is heading into the 24th year of her career in education. She has worked in education as a teacher, bilingual educator, principal, special ed director, director of exceptional programs and in other administrative roles.

Lawson received her bachelor’s degree in English language and literature from the University of Texas at Arlington and her master’s in educational leadership and administration from the University of New Mexico. Before accepting the position at RISD, Lawson was considering going back to school to study law, to specialize in special education law.

Lawson also serves as an NMCASE board member and was appointed to the Community Schools Coalition by New Mexico Public Education Department.

At the Council for Exceptional Children’s Legislative Summit on Capitol Hill, in mid-July, Lawson advocated for legislation for the benefit of New Mexican students.

For the Maggie Cordova award, Lawson explained NMCASE and NMCEL determine an awardee based on how nominees have contributed to creating inclusive environments in education for specialized populations — which includes students with disabilities, limited English proficiency and/or those facing other circumstances — to be integrated and supported in general education settings.

“I don’t work for applause and I don’t think any of us in education really do,” Lawson said and added that she was “humbled” by the “unexpected” award. “I think it’s just — we try to do right and make the best decisions, so that our kids have equity of access and that, I think, is really the most important to me.”

Generally, Lawson said the district has had 23% of students in the specialized population and this year it is about 20-21%. Lawson explained that integrating general ed and special ed establishes a pathway for “equity of access” to education for students.

Lawson emphasized that this can be accomplished by making child-centered decisions to “maximize benefits of all students and their individual needs.”

“In short, it is recognizing Sonia’s leadership in RISD, New Mexico and nationally in advocating for exceptional children — through advancing policies and practices that are ethical, responsive, and effective to help all children learn in public education,” RISD Superintendent Dr. Ann Lynn McIlroy wrote in a statement. “Her leadership in Roswell has been extraordinary in reshaping how we think and work to support our exceptional children.

“She has made those difficult decisions to ensure that these students receive an incomparable education along with their grade-level peers.”

Lawson and her team developed a special education continuum of services, which she said provided a “redefined approach” for staff and teachers in working with the specialized populations at RISD. The plan was implemented at RISD last year, Lawson said.

“As kids grow up, there’s no autism lines at McDonald’s, or Walmart, or whatever,” Lawson said. “And so, our goal is to try to have any student regardless of their disability — or their unique circumstance — to be able to function independently when they leave us and to be able to have coping mechanisms, and/or skill sets to allow them to manage whatever that impact of the disability might have been, so that they can go on to be successful …”

Lawson has lived and worked in both New Mexico and Texas. She began her career teaching on the general education side, but an experience in a “co-teaching” classroom at La Merced Elementary School in Belen, where she is from, led to her entrance into special education.

Between 1999 and 2000, Lawson worked with the principal and another special education educator to teach together in one setting with fourth-graders, when the idea of co-teaching general and special education was up and coming. Some of her students had severe learning disabilities and autism, though an untrained eye would not be able to differentiate the general ed from the special ed students.

“There were incidental benefits to my general ed kids, but there were exceeding benefits, exceptional benefits for my students with special needs,” Lawson said of that year of co-teaching. “… I had some kids go from being completely nonverbal, who were children with autism, and they were always just playing by themselves, to having a friend group and having the ability to interact with peers. And by the end of that school year, the one particular child, who was rocking, and who was flapping and who was completely nonverbal with peers, was verbal and he was able to present a presentation aloud …”

From this experience at La Merced, Lawson said she built on what she learned when she became an administrator and while pursuing her master’s degree. In fact, she said her master’s became the platform where she collected data “to show much kids could grow when the inclusive environment was presented to them the majority of their day — and the effects were amazing.”

Equity of access is important to Lawson “personally, but also professionally,” from her own experiences of being Hispanic and having an inclusive educational environment in New Mexico, but a “different” experience when she lived in Texas as an elementary student.

She said these experiences led her to think about how adults’ perceptions can affect children. Ultimately, Lawson said establishing relationships with students to support their needs is a similar approach, whether the student has a disability or where cultural sensitivity and understanding may be needed.

Currently at RISD, Lawson and said she and her team have provided ongoing data collection, analyzing school data, and self-assessments of every school. Because of this, the district has been invited to be a pilot district for multileveled systems of support, also know as MLSS, beginning this school year.

“I think that just important is teaching the community that we … ourselves are having to analyze what we need to do differently to meet the needs of kids better,” Lawson said.

City/RISD reporter Alison Penn can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 205, or at reporter04@rdrnews.com.