Parents of young children with special needs in Laveen will say goodbye in May to one of their staunchest champions when Kandy Clauss, coordinator of the school district’s developmental preschool program, retires after nearly four decades of teaching.
Clauss came to Laveen in 2007 from the Tempe Elementary School District, where she had worked for 19 years teaching, first as a resource teacher and then as special needs preschool teacher in the early 1990s. That was when school districts first began implementing programs to meet the requirements of the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990. The ADA revamped and outlined specific criteria schools must meet to ensure all children received a meaningful public education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1975 (IDEA).
“I started working with the preschool population in about 1992-93. Schools were beginning to be required to start services at age 3, as part of IDEA,” Clauss said. “The Tempe program was about a year old and they were hiring special education teachers for the preschool. I was ready for a new challenge and change and I had really enjoyed working with the younger age kids – kindergarten through second when I was a resource teacher.”
In a twist of fate, the person hired for her former job as resource teacher in Tempe was Jonathan Clauss. The couple married in 1996, their dedication to working with children bringing them together outside the classroom. It was Jonathan who led them to Laveen.
“They created a position for me. Jonathan had interviewed for one of the teacher’s positions at Laveen,” Clauss recalled. When their Tempe principal gave her husband a glowing review, he also told Laveen officials they would be foolish not to hire Kandy as well.
There are six morning and six afternoon classes of children who attend the Developmental Preschool program at Laveen Elementary School.“The program (in Laveen) was being redesigned when I took the job,” she said. “They hired me over the phone. We knew the program was just getting started here. Todd Liolios (director of student services for Laveen) had just been hired and we shared a vision of what we could do.”
When the Clausses arrived, Liolios said the district had three special education preschool teachers serving 75 students at the old Laveen Elementary School campus at 51st Avenue and Dobbins Road. The first year, both Clausses taught a preschool class. The next year, Chris Mahler, the program coordinator retired and Kandy took over the role.
“The program has grown in the intervening years in both quantity and quality,” Liolios said. “We now have six teachers teaching 12 sessions of preschool and, at last count, are serving 138 students.
“During Kandy’s time the program moved to the new Laveen campus. She had input into the design of the classrooms and the early childhood playground. Her input has made the early childhood center among the very best in the Valley,” Liolios said.
Parents whose children are current or previous students rave about the success of their children through participation in the program.
Celeste Moore’s twin grandchildren, a boy and a girl, began the program at age 3.
“The Laveen program has helped in so many ways, I don’t know where to begin,” Moore said. “It has helped them socialize, to speak and learn and to grow and to get along with their peers. It has helped them significantly in their delayed development, and so much more.”
Her grandson, now in kindergartner, recently achieved student of the month for his class. “It was the incredible team at Laveen elementary” that helped contribute to his success, Moore said.
Angelica Berastegui says the program made a huge impact on her family, especially the attention and support Clauss gives the students and her staff.
“I have had the pleasure of working with Kandy with both my kids,” Berastegui said. “My son required several types of therapy while my daughter was a peer model in the Laveen Elementary Pre-K program. I can’t imagine how I would have navigated through without her guidance.”
“She has a gift for making you feel part of the family. She makes you feel welcome and calm in what can be a stressful time,” Berastegui said. “When I learned of my son’s special needs, her calm smile and compassion made me feel that I could get through it. Not only is my son doing well, he is receiving awards in an accelerated school. I appreciate Kandy and know that she had a huge positive impact on so many of us here in Laveen.”
Trinity Gonzales said her son has thrived in the program. “Since Julius has attended the developmental school at Laveen elementary his progression has come a long way,” she said. “He has made leaps and bounds since his enrollment and his social interactions seem more meaningful.”
Melissa Widmaier sees similar progress with her son.
“Our son is on the autism spectrum and he’s been in the preschool program almost a full 2 years. He’s been with Ms. Meghan all that time. He loves her. We love her,” Widmaier said.
“The preschool doesn’t just help the children with their struggles, it fosters their strengths. Before this program, Marcus would hide in the back of his daycare room. The staff didn’t think he knew how to talk because he was so reserved!
“We’ve seen a marked improvement in his social interactions and in his confidence since he’s been going to Laveen preschool. He’s eager to try things now, more so than before, and now he can communicate his thoughts more clearly. The preschool gave him a safe place to grow.”
As part of their commitment helping families, Kandy and Jonathan live in the Laveen. “We really wanted to live in the community where we worked. That’s a whole aspect of our decision to be here. Our children went to Laveen schools.”
Liolios said Clauss’ commitment extends beyond the classroom doors and into the community. She helped organize evening and weekend outings for the parents of students to take the children places such as the Phoenix Zoo, the Children’s Museum of Phoenix, local dairy farms, and other outings, including marching as group in the Laveen Community Parade. “These events are enjoyable opportunities for parents, children, and staff to access and enjoy the very best opportunities for young children … that draw several hundred participants,” Liolios said.
Families that might not typically take a special needs child on such an outing find themselves among dozens of other similar families, creating a unique environment of support and resources for families outside the classroom.
As Clauss looks toward her future after retirement, she said she knows it will involve children, perhaps in a volunteer capacity. Looking back over nearly 4 decades of teaching, she said the most meaningful reward is seeing the success of the children.
“There are so many great success stories. I have seen so many children make such progress. They come in not talking, and they leave talking with their parents saying they never stop talking,” she said. “I get to start kids in kindergarten with the services they need on the first day of school.
“Parents send us emails talking about the impact the program has had on their children. Living in the community, we get to see these kids grow and succeed,” she said. “It’s just amazing. I feel so proud of what we’ve been able to do for families here in the program. I will do everything to leave it in great hands when I leave.”
During her tenure, Clauss was awarded the Arizona Special Education Teacher of the Year in 2011 and in January 2013, she was awarded the Certified Employee of the Month Award in Laveen. The preschool program also has been recognized, as has several of its providers, throughout the years for exceptional contributions to children with special needs. While in Tempe, Clauss received the Tempe Diablos Excellence in Education Award.
“It is important to note that Kandy’s greatest skills are not measured by numbers or award plaques,” Liolios said. “She is an exemplary educator who is compassionate, calm, and caring. She is extremely intelligent and insightful. She is a tireless worker who puts in very long hours in the evenings and on weekends to make the preschool run so well. Her work has benefited the lives of so many children in our community.”
This article first appeared in the March 2, 2017 print edition of the South Mountain District News.