When Judy Sorrell was a child, she knew she would devote her life to working with children with disabilities.
As a 5th grader, well before the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act existed, requiring public schools to educate students with disabilities in the “least restrictive” environment possible, Sorrell was already indignant over the way a younger cousin with Down syndrome was being treated in school. Though her cousin attended school on the same campus, Sorrell wasn’t allowed to talk to her or see her all day.
Now 59, Sorrell has drawn on that sense of indignation when necessary to bring the most up-to-date services and professionals to her students in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, where she coordinates special education services for students with low-incidence disabilities for six school districts.
Over 33 years in that job, her curiosity and passion have led to changes locally and statewide in how educational interpreters are certified, how children with autism are educated, and, most recently, how children with traumatic brain injury are taught.
And she’s done so while answering to the six separate school boards, special education directors, and superintendents that pay into the Shenandoah Valley Regional Program for Special Education, the quasi-governmental program that she directs.
Over the years, her responsibilities have grown from 48 students across the six rural districts and a budget of $1.5 million to 350 students and $10 million in funding support. Her only staff is a secretary.
Among the work Sorrell is most lauded for is in the autism arena. More than a decade ago, she saw that parents across Virginia were suing school districts because the schools weren’t meeting the needs of their children with autism. Many districts struggled or failed altogether to provide the right kind of therapy and education to such students, namely in the form of applied behavior analysis. ABA is a specific approach to working with children and adults with autism that is designed to change behavior.
“I didn’t think that was wrong,” Sorrell says of the parents’ legal action. “The school divisions did not have the knowledge or capability with respect to behavior analysis to work with these children. The more I read, the more I knew we needed to move in that direction.”
Doing It ‘Proactively’
Without any in-house expertise, Sorrell partnered with Commonwealth Autism Services, a Richmond, Va.-based organization that provides training for school districts by embedding its staff in districts, where they model techniques for teachers and therapists.
“Other people have been involved in lawsuits and litigation about this kind of therapy and come in after the fact” to provide it, says Jessica Philips, the organization’s vice president and chief operating officer. “Judy did it proactively,” she says, noting that Virginia only began requiring health insurers to cover ABA therapy in 2012.
“She really, really wants the program that she runs to be top-notch quality. She believes that parents should be able to get services in their public school. If those kids are academically and socially more on track, they are more likely contributing members of society,” Philips says. “At the gut of it all for her was, ‘What’s good for kids?’ ”
Sorrell’s work was mentioned in a state legislative committee’s report assessing autism services in Virginia as an example of a successful collaboration.
The six districts began in 2004 with one embedded behavioral analyst. Now there are 10, including some who were teachers in the districts and have since become certified in the approach—which Sorrell found money in her budget to pay for.
Building local capacity, that's just really critical for me. I think it's been a lifesaver for our local school divisions.
That building of local capacity sometimes includes herself.
Earlier this school year, Sorrell studied to become a brain-injury specialist. Traumatic brain injury can affect cognitive function, motor skills, the senses, and emotions.
“You have to have a way to meet the needs of those kids,” says Sorrell, who remembers hearings about the precursor to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act held at Madison College, now James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., when she was a student there in the 1970s.
“We don’t make 100 percent [of parents] happy,” she says, “but we have the responsibility to make sure we’re providing an appropriate program.”
Coverage of leadership, expanded learning time, and arts learning is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at
A version of this article appeared in the February 06, 2013 edition of Education Week