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An interview with Saugus Public Schools’ new Executive Director of Pupil Personnel Services


Editor’s Note: For this week’s interview, we sat down with Dawn E. Trainor, who last Friday officially became the new Executive Director of Pupil Personnel Services for Saugus Public Schools. Trainor, a 1985 Saugus High School graduate who was also president of her class, replaces Lisa Howard, who resigned to accept the position of interim superintendent of Winthrop Public Schools. Formerly, Trainor was Interim Assistant Principal at Saugus High School.

Trainor, who has lived in town all of her life, married another Saugonian – Thomas Trainor – a member of the Saugus High School Class of 1984. He is park supervisor at Camp Nihan, which is run by the state Department of Conservation and Recreation. They have raised three children – all graduated from Saugus High – Jack (2017), Thomas (2013) and Taylor Ann (2012). Dawn Trainor received her Bachelor of Science degree in Sports Management from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst in 2006. She received her Master of Education degree in Special Education (2013) from Salem State University in Salem, Mass.

Trainor began her education career in 2004 as a paraprofessional at Saugus High, assisting classroom teachers with instruction to students with disabilities, in inclusion and life skills classroom settings. Inspired by the job, she returned to college to complete her bachelor’s degree that had been interrupted when she decided to have children. After receiving her bachelor’s degree, she worked five years as a special education teacher at Saugus High. She then worked five years as the Special Education Department Team Leader at Saugus High. She also assumed the positions of Extended School Year Director (2014-16) and MCAS Administrator – After School Program (2015-16). Over the past decade, she has been involved with special education in various roles in the district.

Her school leadership involvement includes participation on the Saugus Public Schools District-Wide MSBA Educational Planning Committee - Special Education, Saugus High School MSBA Educational Planning Committee - Special Education, Saugus High School Instructional Support Team Chair, NEASC Reporting Committee, Technology Advising Committee - Saugus Public Schools, Superintendent Search Committee - Saugus Public Schools, New Teacher Mentor Program - Saugus High School and as Peer Mentor Program Facilitator - Saugus High School.

Trainor is licensed by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education for the following: Special Education Administrator at all levels, Supervisor/Director of Special Education at all levels, Principal/Assistant Principal for grades 9-12, Sheltered English Immersion as an administrator, Moderate Disabilities for grades 5-12 and Severe Disabilities at all levels.

Some highlights of this week’s interview follow.

Q: Okay, Dawn. What is the most challenging aspect of your job that you have just been appointed to?

A: What I would say, is just acclimating to all of the daily responsibilities of this job, as the scope of them will certainly be a little bit more than I’m used to as assistant principal. I think the background that I have will certainly come to play and help me with this. However, just like anything else, anything new, even though you require a learning curve, you have to get the hang of it.

Q: You’ve got about, like, four or five areas of responsibility here. And not just the special education component.

A: Yes. So it’s special education, bilingual education, any matters pertaining to pupil personnel across the district, special education and regular education, a 504 piece [a 504 plan helps a child with special health care needs who doesn’t qualify for special education services to fully participate in school], homelessness – that’s a big problem and something that needs to be carefully addressed.

Q: And as far as your background, you’ve got the special education.

A: Correct. I have a Master’s degree in special education. I have taught in both inclusion and substantially separate settings, so that has kind of given me a wide variety of different disabilities and how to strategize around accommodating for those students. I served as a paraprofessional as well, and an ETL, which is an Evaluation Team Leader. And that’s the person who really looks for policy and procedure in the meetings and making sure that all parties are present, all services are documented correctly and are in line with what the student needs.

Q: What is the biggest challenge you face of all of those areas going in?

A: Honestly, probably just the scope of the job. There’s going to be a lot that I know, will be sort of “Oh, I’m doing that job, too.” It will be the scope of the job.

Q: On any given day, if somebody comes into the district with special needs, all of a sudden, you could have a half-million responsibility that the school district assumes.

A: You got it. Yes. Correct. Special Education numbers are always in flux. They need to be watched carefully. The budget, as you know and you have probably heard at the School Committee meetings, is of concern. It’s a day-to-day thing. You need to make sure you’re staying on top of that. And that can be challenging. Sure.

Q: Any advice you received from your predecessor [Lisa Howard]?

A: Sure. I think that she has given me a wealth of knowledge, actually. I worked as an ATL [Assistant Team Leader] right under her for about three years. I know that she came with a wealth of experience herself and she shared a lot with me, so I’m sure I will be putting that to good use.

Q: What’s the best advice she gave you for the job?

A: I think, probably, it wasn’t direct advice. It was more or less “Take it day by day and make sure you are paying attention. Don’t come in and be overwhelmed and try to do everything at once. Just kind of take it slow and steady.”

Q: Now – the homeless – it’s an area where the numbers can change quickly.

A: That, I’m not as well-versed on yet. I will need to get to that. I do know that is something we will be concerned with. However, as far as hard and fast numbers, I am not certain of that yet. Yes, that is something I need to attend to.

Q: And the particular challenge there?

A: Just being compassionate and knowing who needs and what and getting it to them. Obviously, we have to be cost-effective in how we do things, but these are people, you know. They have needs and we need to be cognizant of that and compassionate about it.

Q: Some of them may be Saugus residents and some of them may be from some other communities.

A: Absolutely.

Q: And they just happen to wind up with the vouchers for the particular hotel and become part of the town’s responsibility.

A: And that’s okay. That’s part of what we do. It’s just looking at those numbers again and trying to be cost-effective as possible. However, being as compassionate as you can be. They deserve that.

Q: Looking back on your career, what’s the experience that best prepares you for this position?

A: I think what happened – the way that I have seen it from different lenses – seeing this job through a different lens. As a paraprofessional to the teacher to the ETL. Taking that special education background and serving as an assistant principal served me enormously. I really believe that whole special education piece is worth its weight in gold. And now I bring all of that to the table, plus expanding my scope of it as an assistant principal. Stepping away from the day-to-day special education function to perform that job, still with a close eye on special education kind of even rounded it out a bit more for me. So, I believe I am bringing a unique perspective. I have developed a lot of positive working relationships and a lot of trust with people in the community and in the school system. And I intend to continue to build on that, and I think it will serve me well in this role.

Q: And things have changed a lot since 1985 when you graduated from Saugus High School?

A: Yes, they have.

Q: Had you ever envisaged being in a position like you are now?

A: No. Never. It’s just something that I became passionate about when I became a permanent substitute. I worked with special education population heavily, and I decided from there that I would get my credentials and continue to build on it, and it just kind of happened. But there’s nothing more rewarding than serving in your own community and giving back. It’s been so good to me and my family.

Q: What has been the most rewarding experience for you while working in Saugus Public Schools?

A: It’s probably been building those relationships with students and their families and just earning their trust and earning that good back-and-forth piece. Certainly, it has been wonderful for me, all of the professional relationships I have had as well. I very much so enjoyed that. But I have taken a lot of pride in my approach to special education and the compassion that I share with families and students. And I think again – I probably mentioned this before – that has served me well, and I don’t lose sight of that.

Q: When you graduated from Saugus High in 1985, what did you have in mind at that point?

A: At that point, I was heavily into fitness. I went to school for sports management. I pursued a bachelor’s degree with that, and from there, I became a mom. And having become a mom and donated my time to the classrooms and a class mom and all of that, I just realized how much I loved working with students and those with special needs in particular. I had a knack for it. And that’s what kind of got me on my course, you know?

Q: Did you marry a Saugonian?

A: Yeah, I did. He graduated in 1984; my husband Tom. We have three kids. They came up through the school system. My youngest just graduated last June and that’s been a positive, wonderful experience as well. So, when you see it coming from all of those different angles, you see how it’s so rewarding to serve here in this room. But also having that benefit of having worked in that room with these families.

Q: And you were class president?

A: Yeah, that was fun.

Q: Any other things you look back on that helped? Were you a member of the National Honor Society?

A: I was involved with a lot of different things. No, I was not an honor graduate. I was an average student. I didn’t apply myself as much as I could have. But when I became interested in getting my master’s degree, for instance, I graduated 3.85 in my class. So, I think once you put your mind to something and get a passion for it, there’s no stopping you. You just keep going. But, yes, I had a great time in high school.

Q: As class president, there’s a lot of responsibility that goes there.

A: Yes. Correct.

Q: Did you get to speak at …

A: Graduation? Yes. At the commencement I did. During various assemblies. As much as they do now, it’s a lot similar, actually. Although, the civic-minded students that I see nowadays, they’re so inspiring. They really have that full community feel where, when we were back in school, I think it was just more of the school. I see the students breaking out. With the community service piece, I see that as a really positive element. It comes together a lot more for students nowadays, which is nice. We’re breeding those students who can then serve their community, and hopefully, one day in a different and more broader capacity.

Q: A good part of your job is as troubleshooter?

A: Oh, yeah – problem-solving.

Q: And what are the biggest challenges of those?

A: That, I wouldn’t even know yet, because I haven’t had it come across my desk. But I know from past experience, usually relying on your reasoning skills is huge. We need to use common sense with our decision-making. We need to use compassion and deep thought, but at the same time, there are times you need to be decisive. You have to know what you have to know and go with it.

Q: There are a lot more challenges now, being a student. You have the two adjustment counselors in this year’s budget to address students with emotional needs, for example.

A: Yes, that’s a wonderful idea. Families need support. They need guidance. They need an ear to bounce things off. There are times when parents are really struggling with their child, so I’m really glad they’ve provided support for them.

Q: Any kind of game plan, moving forward? A strategy to your job? What are some of the things you are going to do?

A: Yes. I want to make sure I’m keeping close contact with the superintendent, according to the mission and the vision of the schools. This is something where I am going to have to find my own way of how I am going to approach this job, but I want to hear from people. I want to hear from all of the stakeholders, for sure. The CPAC – which is special education parent advisory council – a fantastic group; I want to meet up with them and get their ideas about what they think is good and what do we need to improve upon, and kind of take that approach with a lot of different people; keep their input and use that moving forward. Careful listening is how I plan to go about this.

Q: Any new ideas or programs that you want to bring into the position?

A: I am passionate about program development. I have worked on that in the past, particularly at the high school level with social and emotional needs of students – behavioral needs of students – intellectual disability and of that nature. And usually that is a separate programing. I am definitely passionate about that and will keep a close eye on that and continue to improve upon the programs and services that we offer our students. I am a proponent for keeping students here, at Saugus Public Schools. I think that what we offer them is unrivaled and I want to make that a showcase – an example.

Q: Is there anything unique and interesting in your background that will come into play with this new job that will help you through?

A: While I think I am answering your questions well, I am not a bragger. It’s not in my nature. Well there are probably things about me …

Q: Well, share… if you will … please.

A: I have the special education background. And I’ve built upon what I’ve done in the district. That kind of speaks to my plan moving forward, what it is that’s driving me, what I’m passionate about.

Q: Anything else that you would like to share about yourself, this position, challenges and things you like to do?

A: I like to read, especially about work-related stuff. I know that probably sounds boring, but I am an avid reader of many different things work-related.

Q: What do you do as a pastime?

A: I like to hang out with friends. I like to be with my family. I like to do fun things with my family. I have three kids, as I mentioned, so I spend a lot of time being a good mom, I hope, and a good wife to my husband. But now, with my children grown as they are, I anticipate that I will probably have a little more time on my hands to kind of focus in on my career.

Q: How many years for you in the Saugus Public Schools?

A: Officially in ’04, but prior to that, I was in a lot of classrooms as a class mom, with my kids growing up and coming through. So – when I realized – after a few years of doing that, I said, “I’m going to become personnel. I want to do this.” And that’s where the para position began in ’04. When you have a knack for something, it kind of shows. And it just went from there. It was a passion for me.

Q: What’s your hobby when you are not doing school-related work?

A: Just reading – going out. I love to go out. My husband and I go out quite a bit. We just relax and go get something to eat or have a few drinks, get together with friends. That’s huge for me. Whatever fun comes up, I’m fine. I’m not an avid anything, I would say. I’m just one of those people who kind of goes with the flow, and whatever feels good, we’re going to do.

Q: Anything else that you would like to share?

A: I would like to thank Dr. DeRuosi for his support of me and recommending me. I would like to thank the School Committee. The 5-0 vote [approving her appointment last Friday] was very refreshing and I am very thankful for that. And I just want to let the townspeople know, especially parents of special education students and 504 students, that I have an eye on them, I’m thinking of them and I want to continue to improve what we offer our students. That’s my main focus. And I realize that I have a little bit to learn, but that’s okay. I’ll do it.

Q: And you plan to have community meetings with parents?

A: Yes. That’s something I will set up. One of the first things I do will be to meet with the CPAC. So we’ll have a meet and greet with parents who want to participate. I’ll be available for questions and answers, that kind of thing – meeting with administrators – meeting with parents, wherever they need to be.

Q: Anything with a website that’s been set up?

A: We do have our website that’s been worked on. I know that needs a little attention still. I think that’s a work in progress. I wouldn’t mind sending out some kind of newsletter, maybe quarterly from the Office of Pupil Personnel – just kind of updates on what’s happening in the district and highlighting the goals and everything – just letting parents know, because they don’t always have the opportunity to know.

Q: Anything else?

A: I think we are good. I’m just excited to get going.

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