Assistant Superintendent for the Educational Services Commission of New Jersey (ESCNJ), Gary Molenaar, has been named the “2018 Special Education Administrator of the Year” in an award co-sponsored by the New Jersey Association of School Administrators (NJASA) and the New Jersey Association of Pupil Services Administrators (NJAPSA). The award recognizes a special education administrator who has demonstrated “outstanding leadership in providing services to students with special needs, and whose work reflects the highest professional and ethical standards,” according to the NJASA. Mr. Molenaar received the award at the organizations 36th Annual Spring Leadership Conference.
The award includes a $500 contribution to the ESCNJ from Frontline Education, an educational software firm based in Malvern, PA. The $500 award will be given to an ESCNJ graduate to help offset the cost of transitioning to independent living, said Superintendent Mark J. Finkelstein, who hired Mr. Molenaar in 2011.
Mr. Molenaar said he was “deeply honored to be recognized in such a positive way by my colleagues.”
The selection committee included educators from every county in New Jersey, and based its choice on several factors, including “exemplary contributions” to the special education field, “effective use of technology” with special needs students, “respect of colleagues,” and “dedication to students with disabilities and their families.”
Recommendations from educators were also considered. Mr. Finkelstein cited Mr. Molenaar’s “immense knowledge-base, willingness to share information, and most importantly, his continued passion to improve the lives of students.”
Bergen County Special Services Superintendent Howard Lerner, Ed.D. wrote that he “could not think of a more deserving, dedicated, motivated, knowledgeable, and honest colleague to receive this prestigious award.”
Incoming Fair Lawn Public Schools Superintendent Nicholas J. Norcia described Mr. Molenaar as “a pillar in the special education community, whose passion to do what is best for students is commendable.”
Mr. Molenaar said technology has had a dramatic impact in the special education field, adding, “as significant as these advances are, they will always require effective implementation by teachers and administrators.”
Having served in the field for over two decades, Mr. Molenaar said acceptance of special needs students has grown in part due to enforcement of Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) laws.
“More students with disabilities work alongside general education students when feasible, which enhances awareness and acceptance of this population,” he said.
“When I went to school, students were often placed in a separate building or segregated from general education students in the same building. The situation today is not perfect, but we are moving in the right direction.”
Mr. Molenaar said participation in professional development workshops and collaborating with colleagues have been important factors over the course of his career.
“Many people have expertise in special education, but nobody has all the answers,” he said.
“Like general education, special education is a two-way street. There are always things to learn from each other.”
As ESCNJ Assistant Superintendent, Mr. Molenaar has been responsible for several initiatives including:
- The Pathways to Adult Living (PAL) program, which is for students 18-21 who have fulfilled their high school requirements but require more independent living life support.
- Personalized learning for students in conjunction with daily use of Google Chromebooks.
- Introducing Robotics and Computer Coding into the curriculum for higher functioning students.
- Creation of a Special Education Review Service for districts statewide to assist in preparing for state monitoring, or for an objective evaluation of their programs and services.
- Expanding ESCNJ’s collaboration with the New Brunswick Public Schools. Beginning in September, three special education classes will be led by ESCNJ teachers. As a result, many New Brunswick students will have their needs met in their home district, rather than being bused to costly, out of district private special education schools.
Mr. Molenaar said people looking to work in the special education field, must have “an unconditional positive regard for all students, excellent communication skills, and problem solving abilities. Ultimately, the individual must be a tireless, dedicated educator who can manage complex and potentially litigious situations in a professional manner, and continuously strive to do what is in the best interest of students.”
The ESCNJ operates six Middlesex County schools for student’s ages 3-21 with autism, multiple disabilities, and at-risk behaviors, in addition to providing special education services to school districts statewide. The largest Educational Services Commission in New Jersey, the ESCNJ also coordinates transportation services for over 10,000 students across the state, and manages a 1,200 member Co-op Pricing System, the largest cooperative buying program in New Jersey.