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Keynote Presentations

“A dream that may seem impossible can lead to something bigger that can impact the world.” ~ Sara Vasquez

Dr.Mitchell ChesterIn introducing the first of two keynote speakers, Dr. Robison noted another agency name change. The Department of Education is now the Department of Early and Secondary Education (DESE). He observed, “Acronyms change, but the reality is the same. The Department strives for improved educational opportunities for all children.” With that, he introduced Dr. Mitchell Chester, the new DESE Commissioner.

Dr. Chester began by thanking the Federation for its work, and said he appreciates the advocacy and resources it offers. He admitted that schools don’t always see a child’s needs the same way a parent does. The negotiation process is complex, and rules and procedures are not always easy to navigate. He’s glad the Federation is there to help parents with the process.

Dr. Chester also acknowledged the work of the audience – the state agency partners, the administrators, teachers, and the parents – especially the parents. He knows, “It’s hard work to support our kids, navigate services and at the same time promote their independence.”

Earlier in the week, President Obama gave an education speech, and cited Massachusetts for having high educational expectations for its students. The press asked Dr. Chester if he was surprised the Commonwealth was recognized as a leader in education. He was not surprised. “Massachusetts is a top-performing state. There’s a lot that’s going well,” and, “there’s lots of opportunity for improvement.” Top on Dr. Chester’s list is closing the achievement gap for race and disability. Second on his list is correcting the downward trend in literacy in the early grades, as, “Literacy is core to all other areas of learning.” Framing his remarks around No Child Left Behind (NCLB), Dr. Chester said this federal law, “forced people to think about outcomes and results,” and to find new ways to address “outcomes for students with special needs.” Some schools serve children with special needs better than others. DESE will work to identify and share best practices, and implement the strategies that work.

In closing, Dr. Chester, acknowledged the changes in the economy and the federal stimulus funding for education. He will work to, “make a tangible difference to the children schools serve.”

Sara VasquezThe second keynote speaker, Sara Vasquez, an energetic and empowered young woman, wrapped up the morning session with humorous, poignant and inspirational stories about her experiences as an individual with cerebral palsy (CP). She set the tone for the rest of the day, and every member of the audience left filled with new hopes and dreams for what children with special needs and disabilities can achieve.

Sara was born in Puerto Rico, “where the streets are unpaved and when you walked, you got rocks in your shoes.” By the time she was 4 years old, she was not walking or talking. At that time, there was no medical treatment in Puerto Rico, so her mom moved them to New Jersey because she, “didn’t want CP to be the rock her in daughter’s shoe.” Sara’s mom asked the doctor what her daughter would need to get better. The doctor replied, “She needs an education.”

So, Sara’s mom had and continues to have many roles in her life. She was her daughter’s educator, and taught her to take care of herself. She was Sara’s partner and taught her to believe in herself. She was Sara’s advocate and taught her to advocate for herself. Sara said of her mother, “She was the advocate of her self-advocacy.”

Sara’s mother also taught her to dream, supported her dreams, and never told her a dream was impossible. In high school, Sara decided she wanted to become the class valedictorian. Sara admitted this was improbable, as she wasn’t the best of students. She did not become the valedictorian, however, Sara exclaimed, “A dream that may seem impossible can lead to something bigger that can impact the world.” Striving to become valedictorian let Sara discover what she was meant to be. Today she is a motivational speaker and author. Sara cautioned everyone to help children find their voices, and to encourage them that, “there are no impossible dreams.”