Alexa Posny has had 23 jobs. While she never envisioned a specific career path, every position she held was a stepping stone towards her current position as the Assistant Secretary for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) at the U.S. Department of Education, an appointment that allows Posny to draw from all her experiences in education to improve the lives of infants, toddlers, children, youth and adults with disabilities.
As an undergraduate student at the University of Wisconsin, Posny double majored in psychology and sociology. Yet she took 15 credits of education in her senior year, knowing that education “was what she ultimately wanted to do.”
Coinciding with Posny’s college graduation and her decision to begin a master’s degree in behavioral disabilities, Congress started considering the Education for All Handicapped Children Act. A year later, in 1975, Congress passed Public Law 94-142, the Federal law providing students with disabilities a right to a free appropriate public education, otherwise known as FAPE. At the time, public schools accommodated only one in five children with disabilities, and many states explicitly excluded children who were deaf, blind, emotionally disturbed or intellectually disabled.
Posny would go on to teach students who were emotionally disturbed in middle and high schools and students with learning disabilities at the elementary level. She incorporated both academic and behavioral interventions in her teaching. She also visited the homes of all her students to make sure their total needs were being met and to establish a relationship with their parents.
“It was a profound experience,” she recalled. “It established a solid relationship; when I made a phone call or a home visit to my student’s parents, they would talk to me because I went out of my way to meet them with no agenda. I never forget about teaching and how incredibly important it is, and the dedication, hard-work and commitment that all teachers need to do their job well. I remember that like it was yesterday.”
Once Posny finished her masters, she started working on a doctorate in educational administration with a minor in special education, and was licensed as a principal, director of special education, superintendent and curriculum director. Her first administrative job was in professional development in special education, where she worked with 15 different school districts. This then led to a former position as a director of special education in rural Wisconsin, serving 12 school districts.
Posny then moved to the Chicago suburbs, where she was a special education director in southwest Cook County. From urban Chicago she then moved to Kansas, where she worked for nine years in the private sector for a company that ran three Title I technical assistance centers for the Midwest area. She returned to the public school system as a director of special education for the Shawnee Mission School District, eventually becoming the state director of special education with the Kansas State Department of Education.
Although she never thought about the possibility of coming to Washington, Posny was tapped by the Bush Administration to be the director of the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) from 2006 to 2007. After her service at OSEP, she returned to Kansas and became the commissioner of education for the Kansas State Department of Education.
In 2009, she got the call from the Obama White House, and once again, was asked to offer her unique insight at OSERS, as someone who has worked in education from all levels – local, state and federal.
With Posny’s leadership and a $14.5 billion budget, OSERS has a commitment to ensuring programs and initiatives continue to strengthen educational outcomes for infants, toddlers, students and adults with disabilities. Strengthening early intervention services and programs, improving State and local systems to focus on results, closing the achievement gap for students with disabilities, and providing quality secondary transition activities and initiatives for students with disabilities to successfully enter college and careers, are all just a part of her focus at OSERS.
Posny has collaborated across ED offices to create an ED Disability Strategy, an agency wide effort to meet the needs of all individuals with disabilities. As a part of this effort Posny emphasized focusing on Early Intervening Services (EIS), Universal Design for Learning (UDL), Response to Intervention (RTI) and Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports (PBIS). She mentioned that while in Kansas they started multi-tiered system of supports (MTSS) that included all of these components. She stated; “We identified 2,000 to 3,000 fewer kids by putting this in place. With the state funding formula, you get less money but it’s the right thing to do for the kids. We’re seeing kids thrive like we’ve never seen before.”
Posny noted that we’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go. She emphasized that OSERS is continuing to implement and create new initiatives that will improve educational outcomes for all students with disabilities. She reflects on the changes she has witnessed throughout her wide-ranging career.
“There was no field of special education until the 1970s,” she said. “What amazes me is that in just over three decades, a sea change has occurred. In 1975, we excluded 2 million kids with disabilities from school doors. Now we serve more than 7 million kids with disabilities in the public schools. It’s one of the most valuable things I’ve lived through.”
Natalie Torentinos is a graduate student at The George Washington University and a recent intern in the Office of Communications and Outreach.