Q&A with Ms. Stutzman & Ms. Barrick, Special Education Coordinators

Q&A with Ms. Stutzman & Ms. Barrick, Special Education Coordinators

Ms. Pamela Stutzman, left, and Ms. Sara Barrick are District 401's special education coordinators. They have been on the job since July. (D401 photo by Dave Porreca)


Since July 1, Ms. Sara Barrick and Ms. Pamela Stutzman have been District 401's special education coordinators. 

In the process, they have been pioneers of a sort. That's because their positions are new to the District.

Ms. Stutzman will oversee special education and related services, procedures and communications for the Early Childhood Center, John Mills Elementary and Elmwood Elementary, as well as for students who are placed out of district who would attend those schools.

Ms. Barrick will have similar responsibilities for Elm Middle and Elmwood Park High. They will work as part of District 401's Department of Student Services, directed by Dr. Kari Smith.

To learn more about our special education coordinators and the role they will play, District 401 web/media specialist Dave Porreca interviewed Ms. Barrick and Ms. Stutzman via email.

The Q&As were conducted before they officially began their new jobs. An edited version of each exchange appears below.

For more information about Ms. Barrick and Ms. Stutzman, as well as an introduction to each of District 401's new administrators for 2018-19, please click here.


Q&A with Ms. Sara Barrick


Sara Barrick

Ms. Barrick, District 401's special education coordinator for grades 7 to 12, majored in psychology at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. 

After graduating from NIU, she earned a master's degree in educational psychology and an educational specialist degree in school psychology, both from Loyola University Chicago.

Beginning in August 2008, Ms. Barrick spent 10 years in Community Consolidated School District 59 working as a school psychologist at Forest View Elementary School in Mount Prospect.

In addition, she served as CCSD 59's co-lead school psychologist from August 2016 to June 2017.

During her time in CCSD 59 she earned a second master's degree, an M.A. in school leadership from Concordia University Chicago, and a director of special education endorsement, also from Concordia.


Q: Where did you grow up?


A: I grew up in Oak Park, Illinois.


Q: What high school did you attend?


A: OPRF — Oak Park and River Forest.


Q: You majored in psychology as an undergraduate at Northern Illinois University. What motivated you to study psychology? What interested you about the subject? 


A: While in high school, I noticed that I really liked listening to my friends’ problems and giving them advice. I seemed to be a good listener, and I had a strong desire to help people, especially my friends. This led me to think seriously about a career in some form of psychology, possibly child psychology, so I decided to pursue an undergrad degree in psychology.


Q: Did you intend to go into educational psychology all along? If so, why? If not, at what point did you decide to focus on educational psychology, and what interested you in that specialty?


A: For most of my undergrad, I thought I would be going into child psychology, though I did not really know what I wanted to do in that field. During my junior year of undergrad, I heard about some presentations being offered about school psychology during school psychology week (sometime in November). I had never heard of school psychology before and did not know what it entailed. After attending only one presentation, I was sold that this was the career I wanted to pursue. It combined working with kids, a little bit of math with the testing that is done, did not require a doctorate to begin work, and even included summers off.


Q: Did you go straight from your undergraduate studies at NIU to your master’s program at Loyola, or was there an interval where you worked full time or did something else? If the latter, what did you do, if you don’t mind sharing? 


A: No, I took what I intended to be one year off, but it turned into two years off. During that time I worked as a child-care worker and later a child-care supervisor for a group home for abused children called Hephzibah Children’s Association.  


Q: Were you a full-time master’s student at Loyola? If not, what else were you working on (again, if you don’t mind sharing)?


A: I was a full-time master’s student at Loyola, though they offered afternoon/evening classes while still attending full time. While there I continued working for Hephzibah for a short time, but working on the weekends became too difficult to do while managing school work, so I instead worked for a company assessing the effectiveness of reading curricula on pre-K and K students in CPS. This project was called the CLIMBERs project, and I traveled to various CPS schools assessing students’ reading ability using different assessment tools.


Q: I’m sure there are many ways to use advanced degrees in educational and school psychology. What led you to focus on elementary-age students, and why public school?


A: A school psychologist position is an educational license, so I was certified to work with children in pre-K through 12th grade. The position is typically only hired by public schools. During my course work, I did my practicum in a high school and my internship in an elementary school to help me decide what age group I liked working with best. In the end, I found I enjoyed my time working with the younger elementary-age students.


Q: For the benefit of lay people, how would you describe the job of a school psychologist? What are the main responsibilities of that position?


A: My main responsibilities as a school psychologist were conducting evaluations for special education services, writing reports, completing paperwork for students, leading eligibility and IEP (Individualized Education Program) meetings and checking paperwork as one of my building’s LEA (Local Educational Agency) representatives, consulting with teachers on student concerns to begin the problem-solving process, assisting the student services teams with problem-solving academic and behavioral concerns for students, collecting and analyzing academic and behavioral data used throughout the MTSS (Multi-Tiered Systems of Support) process through consultations, interviews, observations, screening assessments, etc., providing individual and group counseling for students, leading classwide SEL (Social and Emotional Learning) lessons, and assisting students involved in behavior crises. The great part about this role was that each day for me was frequently different depending on things that would arise in the building, and it can vary a lot in different districts. My job was always to serve the changing needs of the building.


Q: Since August 2008 you’ve worked as a school psychologist at Mount Prospect’s Forest View School, part of Community Consolidated School District 59 (CCSD 59). Looking back on your time at Forest View, what have been some of the major challenges and rewards?


A: One of the biggest challenges was helping teachers to see things from an empathetic point of view instead of simply a behavioral point of view. This is not always an easy thing to do when student behaviors are impacting your teaching and others’ learning. Another challenge was helping families to understand their child’s strengths and needs from an educational perspective and to understand the special education process. The major rewards of this job have always been seeing students use the things that you taught them, when parents thank you for all the work that you have done with their child, and when students independently show kindness toward others. All of that just warms my heart.


Q: What motivated you to move into an administrative position?


A: I went back to school to get my administrative degree two years after I started working as a school psychologist. The school psychologist role has many leadership components to it, and I found that while I loved my time working directly with kids, I also really enjoyed the leadership roles in my position. After working for 10 years at Forest View, I was ready to continue to grow as a professional and to increase my opportunities to make a bigger impact on a school district instead of just one school.


Q: What do you think your strengths are as an administrator?


A: I think I’m a good listener and a good observer. I try to lead by example and seek to find ways to support the people I work with. I’m able to stay calm in difficult situations. I also think I know when to seek opinions and suggestions from staff and how to motivate staff to do their best work. I also try to be personable and hope to build professional relationships with the staff that I’ll be working with.


Q: What interested you in the Elmwood Park position of special education coordinator for grades 7 through 12?


A: The Elmwood Park position interested me right away since I am somewhat familiar with the community having grown up not too far away. I was also really interested in how focused the District seems to be with SEL. Having worked in a large district, I was very interested to work in a smaller district. And it was highly desirable how close Elmwood Park is to home. 


Q: How has your work in Community Consolidated School District 59 prepared you for this position?


A: First, I think the role of school psychologist has prepared me for this position in a lot of ways including having served as an LEA for IEP meetings, being very familiar with special education law and special education paperwork, and leading and facilitating team meetings among other things. While working for CCSD 59, I also spent several summers working as a summer school principal in an elementary building where I would oversee the hiring of teachers, organization of curriculum, observations of teachers, arranging busing and breakfast, and reviewing student data.

Additionally, CCSD 59 was always a very financially stable district, which afforded us the ability to gain access to the materials and resources that would be most beneficial for helping teachers and students. This helped me to get a lot of experience working with and using many different types of materials and resources that can help students succeed.


Q: How will your new position differ from what you’ve been doing in CCSD 59?


A: The biggest difference is that I will be working with middle school and high school students and staff instead of elementary school students and staff. I also imagine that I will be doing more consulting with teachers and teams for how best to support students and how to be in compliance with the law. I’m excited to see what the other similarities and differences will be in this position.


Q: As you mentioned, you’ll be overseeing special education at Elm Middle School and Elmwood Park High School. What kind of challenges and rewards do you foresee in making the transition from working with elementary school students and faculty to middle/high school students and faculty?


A: I’m actually very excited to begin working with this age group. The biggest challenge will likely be getting to know and understand the differences between the elementary and middle/high school setting. The biggest reward will be having a more balanced view of public education and special education services through all grade levels.


Q: What are your goals for your new position? To put it another way, what do you hope this position — which is newly created — will accomplish for the District? 


A: My initial goal is simply to get to know the District and the staff who work here so I can better understand the strengths and needs of District 401. I’d also like the staff to get to know me better so they can feel comfortable to ask for my help when they need it. I hope it will help the District make advancements in their special education services to help students and staff.


Q: What do you like most about working in education?


A: I have liked time spent with students and working with other professionals who are dedicated and passionate enough about this work that they chose a job in teaching. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t also like summers off, but I’m about to find out what a career without it looks like.


Q: Looking back on your career so far, what are some of the accomplishments and highlights that you’re most proud of?


A: Some of the accomplishments in my professional career so far that I’m most proud of are helping to educate my district on Tourette Syndrome while working with a student with Tourette Syndrome by arranging a districtwide training provided by the Tourette Association of America, 
being asked to be the co-lead psychologist in my district, helping to train two different interns and helping to mentor two new psychologists, and completing both my Type 75 and my Director of Special Education Endorsement.


Q: Your new position means that you will be spending most of your time supervising others. What will you miss about the daily practice of school psychology?


A: I will miss time spent with students regularly and lunches with colleagues. I have had the privilege of working with some incredible teachers and team members whom I have formed close relationships with.


Q: What are you looking forward to about working in District 401?


A: I’m looking forward to a new set of challenges, getting to know the staff and students, and sharing all that I have learned through my previous career with the staff here. I’m also looking forward to the shorter commute.


Q: Once you’re on the job, what will your priorities be as you get ready for the new school year?


A: My priorities are really just to get to know the buildings, the staff and the students. I want to learn what the staff think they are good at and what they think they need more support with.


Q: What is your guiding philosophy as an educational psychologist, and how does that show up in your daily work?


A: My guiding philosophy has also been the importance of relationships between students and staff. As a result of that, I have always done all that I needed to do to preserve the relationship between a student and his/her teacher. Students need boundaries, rules and structure to help them grow up to be responsible adults, and I have always helped students to understand this.


Q: Who have been some of your major professional influences or mentors, and what lessons have you learned from them?


A: I happen to have spent the past 10 years working in the same district that I did my school psychology internship in. My supervisor as an intern continues to work for the district, and she has been a mentor of mine since my career began. She has taught me the importance of work/life balance, how to find sanity in challenging situations, what professionalism looks like in this field and how to strive to excel at everything I do.


Q: What advice would you give to young people interested in going into the field of psychology in general or educational psychology in particular?


A: I would tell them that though this job is not easy, it is incredibly fulfilling and rewarding. I would encourage them to try to see the teacher’s perspective whenever possible, to take the time to listen to what people are telling them they need, and learn as much as you can about curriculum, interventions, special education law and counseling techniques.


Q: What are some of your interests outside of work?


A: Outside of work I teach a dance fitness format called WERQ to adults at the Park District of Oak Park. I love fitness and I love to dance, and WERQ is the perfect combination of both. I also love to travel and try to do so whenever possible. My other interests are movies, red wine and time spent with family and friends.


Q: Would you like to tell us anything about your family?


A: Sure! I currently live in Oak Park with my boyfriend, who has been super supportive of my transition into this new role (he came to the Board meeting where my position was confirmed). I have two younger brothers. My middle brother, Adam, works for United Airlines and lives in Jefferson Park. My youngest brother, Aaron, is in sales and lives in Oak Park as well. My dad is no longer with us, but my mom lives in Oak Park too. She and I are very close.


Q&A with Ms. Pamela Stutzman


Pamela Stutzman

Ms. Pamela Stutzman, the District's new special education coordinator for grades pre-K to 6, earned a bachelor's degree in social work from the State University of New York at Buffalo.

She then completed her master's degree in social work at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, followed by two years in southern Africa with the Peace Corps.

Upon her return to the United States, she spent five years as a school social worker at Finley Junior High School in Chicago Ridge.

In 2007, Ms. Stutzman took a position as a school social worker with Pennoyer Elementary School District 79 in Norridge, where she worked with students in grades pre-K to 8. While at Pennoyer, Ms. Stutzman completed her second advanced degree from UIUC, a master's in educational administration and leadership.

From August 2015 to July 2017, she worked for Community Consolidated School District 15 in Palatine as a building case manager for early childhood. She spent the next year as assistant principal at District 15's Conyers Learning Academy before coming to District 401.


Q: Where did you grow up?


A: I grew up in Lancaster, N.Y., about nine miles outside of Buffalo.


Q: What high school did you attend?


A: I attended Lancaster Central High School. The same school district my dad attended and now my two nephews attend.


Q: You majored in social work as an undergraduate at State University of New York at Buffalo. What motivated you to study social work? What interested you about the subject? 


A: This is quite the question! There’s a number of different factors that motivated me to get into social work from being the “listener” in my group of friends growing up to enjoying working with kids. I was the first person in my family to go to college, so while I was supported in my decisions, my parents could only help guide me so far.

Once I started college I sat in a “Welcome to the Psychology Department” meeting and realized during that meeting this is not what I wanted to do (they talked about working with rats; I wanted to work with people). So I headed over to the Social Work Department and found myself much more at home.


Q: Did you intend to go into school social work all along? If so, why? If not, at what point did you decide to focus on school social work, and what interested you in that specialty?


A: The school district I went to as a student did not have school social workers (they do now) or at least I had no idea they were around. I used to tell my parents what my “ideal” job as a social worker would be: It included things like working with kids and families, working in a school, touching on health, making good choices, etc. I actually found out about school social work in the Occupational Outlook Handbook (this is way before the internet). I was incredibly surprised and happy to find a career that fit all that I wanted to do.


Q: Your first job as a school social worker was in Chicago Ridge District 127.5, where you worked from August 2002 to June 2007. Did you go straight from your undergraduate studies at SUNY Buffalo to your job in District 127.5, or was there an interval where you did something else? If the latter, what did you do, if you don’t mind sharing? 


A: I had known since I was 18 that I wanted to be a Peace Corps volunteer — I grew up watching the commercials about “the toughest job you’ll ever love.” I reached out to a recruiter when I completed my associate degree but was politely encouraged to wait until I had some skills or experience to share. I held on to that application and figured that I would do Peace Corps if I didn’t get accepted into graduate school.

I got accepted at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, so I completed my master’s degree then went into Peace Corps. I served for two years in the small mountain kingdom of Lesotho in southern Africa as an education volunteer. My main job was teaching special education to teachers.


Q: I’m sure there are many ways to use advanced degrees in school social work. During your career you’ve focused on working with students in pre-K through 8th grade. Why that age range, and why public school?


A: I have almost always only worked with children 8th grade and under, even before becoming a school social worker, so this was just an age range that I felt most comfortable with. I enjoy both the junior high students as well as the preschoolers; each age has some wonderful characteristics about them that makes them fun to work with, especially when you see progress, no matter how small. As for public schools, I grew up in the public school system, so it seemed only natural. And honestly, not many schools outside of public schools have school social workers.


Q: For the benefit of lay people, how would you describe the job of a school social worker? What are the main responsibilities of that position?


A: The main responsibilities are to address the social-emotional needs of the students and school community. How you go about doing this will look very different depending on the school, age and community. School social workers work with students, staff, parents and community members in a variety of ways — through direct work in small or large groups, classroom lessons, parent workshops and connecting families to outside resources. There’s so much a School Social Worker can do and does; it depends on the person’s strengths and the needs of the school.


Q: Looking back on your time as a school social worker, what were some of the major challenges and rewards of that position?


A: Some of the major challenges include working with students and families who were transient — working to get resources for them and providing a stable school environment. Another challenge is allowing students (and adults) to work through situations in their own time with my support and not just “telling them what to do” when I knew they weren’t ready to hear it.

The rewards are many. For example: hearing from a student who was able to have a difficult discussion with their parents because of the support I provided, or having a teacher thank me for a suggestion that worked for a student with whom they were struggling to connect. 


Q: You’ve been with Community Consolidated School District 15 in Palatine since August 2015, first as a building case manager, then as an assistant principal. Could you tell us about your time there, especially your work with the district’s early childhood program?


A: Most of my work in CCSD 15, at Conyers Learning Academy, has been with the early childhood program, as they make up the majority of the students in the school. There are just under 400 early childhood students in the building, many of them come to us out of the state’s early intervention (EI) program once they turn 3 years old. Conyers also collaborates with an organization (ECDEC) that has a Preschool for All grant through the state.

I have worked with the district’s two EI facilitators and the families transitioning out of early intervention, from the initial evaluation through the school to the eligibility meeting and beyond depending on the outcome. I have facilitated problem-solving meetings for a variety of early childhood classrooms (blended rooms, self-contained EC rooms and even more highly structured EC rooms for students needing a high level of support).

Part of my job there also consisted of acting as LEA (Local Educational Agency) representative for eligibility and IEP (Individualized Education Program) meetings, developing and presenting staff development, and evaluating staff.


Q: What motivated you to move into an administrative position?


A: I chose to get into administration after I received my second master’s degree from UIUC, in educational administration, and the opportunity arose in CCSD 15.


Q: What do you think your strengths are as an administrator?


A: I believe my strengths are my patience and listening skills — I’m able to take a step back and listen to what people are saying, ask questions for clarification and see where there is any confusion.


Q: What interested you in the Elmwood Park position of special education coordinator for grades pre-K through 6?


A: I am interested in the position here because of the scope of the responsibilities, the challenges, the staff I met during the interview process and the community.


Q: How has your work in CCSD 15 and elsewhere prepared you for this position?


A: I feel my previous experiences have prepared me for this position as I have worked in small, close-knit communities with diverse populations, a variety of ages/grades and numerous programs (curriculum, local and state initiatives, etc.), and I’ve had the opportunity to hire and evaluate certified and noncertified staff.


Q: How will your new position differ from what you’ve been doing in CCSD 15?


A: At Conyers Learning Academy I started as the building case manager (a new position) and then moved into one of the assistant principal positions. There are similarities in the Elmwood Park and CCSD 15 positions as I facilitated team problem-solving meetings, ran IEP meetings, developed and presented staff professional development and evaluated certified and non-certified staff. The difference is that now I will be in multiple buildings, working with grades pre-K through 6th grade and assisting in the problem solving for both general education and special education students.


Q: What kind of challenges and rewards do you foresee in making the transition from working with students and faculty in a single building to students and faculty in multiple buildings, each with their own traditions and characteristics?


A: The rewards I can foresee include working with diverse teams and families, getting to know the staff and students, and the opportunity to follow students and families from their initial introduction to the educational system until at least 6th grade if not beyond. I imagine there will be many more rewards that come once I jump in and get started

The challenge I foresee is developing this position, as it is new to the District and there will be a learning curve for all of us. This is also a reward in my mind, as it’s a challenge to start in a new position but rewarding when it starts to take shape.


Q: What are your goals for your new position? Put another way, what do you hope this position — which, as you noted, is newly created — will accomplish for the District?


 A: I hope that this new position will help facilitate good communication between schools, including expectations, services and the problem-solving process, to name a few items.


Q: What do you like most about working in education?


A: I love knowing that the work we are doing in schools impacts students and people for a lifetime. We set the foundation for a love of learning, and we work with all families no matter their culture, religion or socio-economic status.


Q: Looking back on your career so far, what are some of the accomplishments that you’re most proud of?


A: Some of the accomplishments that come to mind include: writing a grant to plant a flower garden with the school’s Student Council group, establishing PBIS at District 79 in Norridge, and working with the social workers at CCSD 15 on developing a social work RtI (Response to Intervention) rubric for the early childhood classrooms.


Q: Your new position means that you will be spending most of your time supervising others. You’ve already had experience with that. What do you miss about the daily practice of school social work?


A: I miss the day-to-day interactions with students, getting to know them and helping them work through different situations. I still get to interact with students, just at a different level, and I help support staff who are working with students, so that is a good feeling.


Q: What are you looking forward to about working in District 401?


A: I’m looking forward to working with such dedicated staff, to be a part of the changes that are happening at all levels (curriculum, technology) and building relationships with families as I watch their children grow in the District.


Q: Once you’re on the job, what will your priorities be as you get ready for the new school year?


A: Getting to know the administrators at each of the schools and learning about the unique strengths and needs of each of the buildings and what the expectations are for me.


Q: What is your guiding philosophy as an educator and social worker, and how does that show up in your daily work?


A: My philosophy has been to keep what is best for students No. 1 in all I/we do. This shows up in my daily work when asking questions and having conversations during problem-solving meetings.


Q: Who have been some of your major professional influences or mentors, and what lessons have you learned from them?


A: My professional influences have been the administrators and staff I have worked with over the years. I have learned so much from many of them that it’s hard to put it all down! Things like how to be flexible while teaching a lesson, using visuals with students, handling difficult conversations with parents and staff — the list goes on!


Q: What advice would you give to young people interested in going into the field of social work in general or school social work in particular?


A: Remember you are not doing it for the money! It’s a great field, find an area you are interested in and learn all about it, dive in and experience it wholeheartedly! Also, take care of yourself. Remember to step back and know that you cannot fix everything and everyone.


Q: What are some of your interests outside of work?


A: There are a number of activities and hobbies I like to engage in outside of work. These include: traveling, camping, hiking, biking, spending time with our two dogs (both coonhounds), reading, fixing up the house, gardening, visiting family (both our families live outside of Illinois), spending time with friends.


Q: Would you like to tell us anything about your family?


A: My family — parents, brother and his two sons — still live outside of Buffalo. My husband, Samay, and I have two dogs, Daisy and Jethro. My husband’s parents live in California, and his brother’s family lives in Maryland.


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