Nellie Aspel’s career path—and her passion—came to her when she was younger than some of the children she now serves.
To keep her bright student occupied, Aspel’s 2nd grade teacher allowed her to help in a classroom for children with disabilities, held in an isolated part of her school building.
“I’ve never even seen those kids on the playground before. Why are they off by themselves?” Aspel, 62, remembered asking her grandfather. He replied that they were lucky to even be at school at all.
In retrospect, he didn’t intend to be harsh, Aspel said. School exclusion was simply a fact for many students with disabilities in the 1960s. Nevertheless, “that had an impact on me,” Aspel said. “I do feel like I had a sense of that didn’t make sense—they’re kids like me.”
The guiding light of special education is inclusion: ensuring that students with disabilities are provided opportunities to participate in school life to the fullest extent possible.
- Have a plan: Develop a vision and get stakeholder involvement. It also means thinking about how you are going to train new people, and how you are going to assess when changes are needed. Provide the long-term coaching necessary for “a new program” to become “how we do business.”
- Build a supportive partnership: You can’t lone-wolf it. New initiatives take all the key stakeholders working outside of their silos. To overcome challenges such as turfism, resistance to change, and gatekeeping, people must believe that at the end of the process things will be better and that their contribution made a difference.
- Never give up: Be determined. Be patient. Be focused. There will be challenges, obstacles, and opposition you did not anticipate. Be willing to adjust and negotiate, but never compromise on doing the right thing and doing things right.
But for Aspel, who oversees special education for the 14,100-student Cleveland County, N.C. school district, embracing students deemed difficult to teach extends beyond the population of students who have a disability label. Many students in the county need help even if they aren’t officially identified with disabilities, particularly children who struggle with mental health.
“If you can provide mental health supports, it’s going to just impact everything,” said Aspel, officially the executive director of exceptional children. “Sometimes we have to stop and teach social-emotional learning skills, before we can provide those academic skills.”
And that support extends to educators as well. Aspel also ensures that school staff are equipped to meet a student’s needs, or to steer them to a professional provider who can offer deeper assistance.
“People get frustrated when they have no options and no tools and no support and no understanding,” Aspel said.
Under Aspel’s leadership, the rural district, located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, has woven a safety net for students with mental health issues from mild to severe. The district has managed to do this through artful braiding of grant money, which supplements the district’s local, state, and federal funding. That extra financial support is essential in a district where more than half of students come from families eligible for food stamps; the district’s poverty level allows it to offer free lunch and breakfast to all students. About 60 percent of the student body is white, 27 percent are black, and 7 percent are Hispanic.
Cleveland County’s commitment to providing mental health services for its students is also born of necessity, Aspel said. The county is home to dozens of therapeutic foster care providers and group homes that offer residential supports for children with mental health challenges. Last year the district served more than 100 students who lived in one of those placements.
“We want kids to academically strive, but in reality, to be able to maximize that, we have to be able to meet those other needs as well,” said Superintendent Stephen Fisher. “You just can’t do one thing and not build up the entire scaffold of support for students.”
In Cleveland County, staff in all schools have been trained in recognizing suicide risk in students. All schools also have in place an entry protocol for children who are transferring in from a mental health setting, an alternative school or a correctional setting—a change from previous years, when staff members might have been in the dark about a student’s emotional or behavioral needs.
The district has also entered into partnerships with community mental health providers, allowing them to provide services to identified students during the school day. More than 4,000 outpatient therapy sessions were provided to students at school during the 2018-19 school year.
Plus, the school district is piloting several other programs, including one that is intended to strengthen the district’s multitiered systems of support framework. Another district initiative, called the Community Resiliency Model, trains not only school staff and students, but parents and the community at large, on methods to reduce the impact of emotional trauma.
In 2018, Cleveland Schools was one of three North Carolina districts awarded a portion of an $8.8 million grant from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Dubbed Project ACTIVATE (Advancing Coordinated and Timely InterVentions, Awareness, Training, and Education) the money is meant to cut the need for school discipline, reduce dropout rates, and train school staff to recognize and respond to student mental-health needs.
North Carolina chose Cleveland County as a pilot district because the district has already shown success with other programs it uses to improve student behavior.
“The uniqueness of this grant is there’s not a scripted approach,” said Sherry Thomas, North Carolina’s state director of special education and an undergraduate classmate of Aspel’s. Cleveland County is “able to take the tools, a little bit of funding, and they’re creating that support based on that need,” she said.
With all of these initiatives, the overarching goal is for student mental health issues to be addressed early and efficiently, instead of school staff just bouncing from crisis to crisis.
And that’s a change from when Aspel became the special education director more than 10 years ago.
“We were reactive, and I felt like I was a fire chief. I just ran around trying to put out these horrible fires. And I thought, ‘we cannot maintain this. We are not in front of anything. We are a day late and a dollar short all the time,’ ” she said.
She recalled that when she started as director, a number of students were on homebound instruction—“out of sight, out of mind”—because of behavioral issues. She brought them back into regular school with supports. A visit to a “chaotic” day treatment program for students with mental health needs led to her work to create a research-based therapy model alternative for students at their own schools.
Teri Putnam, the district’s lead mental health liaison, pointed to a single “port of entry” for students entering school as a particularly successful initiative spearheaded by Aspel. The process allows all relevant district staff to quickly be brought up to speed on that child’s needs—and ensures that a student has the help he or she needs to remain in school.
“Any child that comes into our county from a residential facility, a group home or a foster home, they come through a single portal,” Putnam said. That means extra work tracking down records, which may be housed in more than one previous district.
But “you don’t just throw a kid who needs multiple supports in a school,” Putnam said. “We feel really good about not just dumping kids and setting them up to fail.”
With multiple programs underway, Aspel’s goal is to build a sturdy and sustainable culture that isn’t dependent on one leader.
“Nellie will not let you move forward until you have this very well-thought-out implementation plan. What is the best thing for these people at this location?” said Ryan Etheridge, who is the district’s Project ACTIVATE evaluator and coach. “If you don’t have a place to support [these programs] it’s not worth implementing.”
But the work also goes deeper than just making sure programs are properly launched, Etheridge said.
“I remember being in [Aspel’s] office one time, and she said, ‘You know what? I can deal with working with ignorant people. I can teach them to be better. But I can’t deal with people who aren’t kind to kids. That’s where these things come from, when you start with caring for kids first.’ ”
People get frustrated when they have no options and no tools and no support and no understanding.
While the district has revamped its mental health supports for students and training for teachers, it has also made it clear that teachers are not to take on the job of mental health professionals.
Chris Bennett, the principal of the 730-student Burns Middle, is piloting some of the expanded work on building student emotional resilience.
“Teachers have been supportive,” Bennett said. “We went in with the understanding that if we can remove the social and emotional barriers that are getting in the way of core instruction, they will be more successful in their classes.”
With that said, teachers are also told that there are trained counselors available to grapple with problems that are too serious for an educator to handle.
“We don’t want teachers having deep conversations with kids about suicide,” Bennett said. “We want them to refer out.”
Thomas, the state special education director, said Aspel and her colleagues are always willing to share with other districts what they have learned, and the federal grant will help the county share its knowledge.
An important part of her job, Aspel said, is helping district staff understand that mental health needs mean students need continuous support. That can help steer administrators away from a punitive approach.
“Principals are more willing to show a little bit of restraint if they understand that at the end of the day they are not going to be left holding the bag by themselves. There are mechanisms for support. There are options,” she said.
Aspel’s work isn’t just focused on Cleveland County. She is continually tapped by the state to share what she’s learned with other districts.
“One of the things we are trying to a much better job of is connecting all the mental health support work, so that we do have a unified system,” said Thomas. Cleveland County is “about three and a half hours away, but we keep tagging her to come in.”
Aspel doesn’t mind hitting the road. But, she said, “it’s not that what we’re doing is so magical. It’s the way that everyone works together to make it happen.”
Coverage of leadership, summer learning, social and emotional learning, arts learning, and afterschool is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the February 19, 2020 edition of Education Week