Students with disabilities have been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic compared to their peers without disabilities. The American Rescue Plan: Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ARP ESSER) is providing Kentucky Department of Education’s (KDE’s) Office of Special Education and Early Learning (OSEEL) a chance to help those students.
The American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) – which included more than $2 billion for Kentucky public schools – authorized a third ESSER Fund, ARP ESSER. The federal funding supports the safe and sustained return to in-person learning and expands equity by supporting students who need it most, particularly those most impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
OSEEL is using the federal funding to take steps to support local districts in improving the outcomes for students with disabilities after they leave high school. The purpose of these services is to ensure a smooth transition from high school to adulthood. This can include assistance with schooling, aid with employment and support for college or career and technical education.
KDE Program Manager David Wickersham believes focusing ARP ESSER funding on transitional services will help OSEEL see what resources currently exist in school districts across the Commonwealth and amplify that work to educators and community members working with this student population.
“Transition, even in the best of times, is a difficult issue for districts to grapple with in terms of successfully moving students with disabilities into either the world of adult workforce or into the world of further education,” he said.
Necessary COVID mitigation strategies to protect public health made it more difficult to for districts to fully support the transition-based activities for students with disabilities. Activities such as dual enrollment courses or community-based work experiences were more difficult to complete virtually or be completed at all.
“[We recognize] that even on a good day this transition work is a struggle and a challenge; it was something that was really exacerbated by the pandemic,” Wickersham said.
In order to provide more support to districts, OSEEL hired four postsecondary transition specialists – Jillian McGraw, Lynn Petrey, Traci Sharpe and Jason Wheatley – through ARP ESSER funding.
Wickersham said each of new OSEEL team members have a “relentless focus” on what is best for students.
“It was not a matter of us at KDE thinking we know what might be good for this initiative. It was about finding true, honest, day-to-day success happening right now in districts and finding out what it is they are doing and see if they could join us to share what they know,” he said. “[The team] is always talking about how to help the students, how to engage families better, how to create and enhance opportunities.”
In their current stage of project planning, the team is working with school districts and community partners through a needs-based assessment. The team plans to promote positive practices throughout Kentucky while providing opportunities and support for more districts to engage in transition-based work.
Jillian McGraw of Fort Thomas serves as a legal adviser for the early learning team and the transition team, helping both with legal analysis and policy recommendations. She has a bachelor’s degree from Northern Kentucky University (NKU), a master’s from Xavier University (Ohio) and a juris doctorate from Northern Kentucky Chase College of Law. She is licensed to practice law and is a member of the Ohio State Bar Association.
“After I graduated from law school and passed the bar, I wanted to be in a field I could be hands-on with legal issues and also give back to students,” she said. “I have a history of working with students that have special needs and I wanted to advocate for them. This opportunity seemed too good to be true.”
McGraw taught for eight years in New York as an intervention specialist. Throughout her teaching career, she taught elementary, middle and high school; however, early learning remained her concentration. During law school, McGraw worked at the Children’s Law Center and the Legal Aid of the Bluegrass (LABG).
At LABG, she worked as a legal assistant for the KIDS RISE project, helping families impacted by the opiate crisis. When working at the Children’s Law Center, she advocated for juvenile defenders and was trained in the effects of quarantine on children and impacts on legal representatives. She is now a member of the LABG Board.
McGraw believes this project gives Kentucky a unique chance to address deficits that COVID-19 caused.
“I like the innovative component to the project. We are striving to do new, better, more advanced initiatives,” she said. “I think it’s been a long time since these specific student populations have been the main focus of federal funding.”
Petrey has worked 19 years as an educator, serving as a special education teacher in Lincoln County school district for three years and for 16 more in Madison County Schools.
Petrey’s teaching role in Madison County gave him opportunities to expand on new techniques in education. He started transition-based programs for students in the emotional and behavioral disorder and moderate to severe disabilities programs. Each program explored community career work opportunities, work training skills, student transportation system, paid and unpaid work experience hours and higher education partnerships.
“I want to take what I was already doing in Madison County and get other districts on board with ways to increase postsecondary opportunities,” Petrey said. “It is not just a Madison County thing. It’s a statewide thing to work on increasing those opportunities. And that affects all types of students, no matter their disability.”
A native of Broughtontown, Petrey earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Eastern Kentucky University (EKU). He earned a doctorate at EKU in educational leadership and policy in 2021. Petrey lives with his wife and three children in Richmond.
Traci Sharpe has spent 20 years serving Kentucky’s public schools in a variety of roles – special education teacher, regional consultant, behavior coach, director of special education and adjunct professor. Most recently, her work as the director of special education in Marion County Public Schools allowed her to not only focus on special education, but also to lead work around the social emotional learning needs of students and staff.
In her new position at KDE, Sharpe is looking forward to playing a part in meaningful work that has the potential to change students’ lives.
“Everyone wants to be valued and have purpose in life; however, individuals with disabilities oftentimes aren’t afforded the same opportunities when transitioning from high school to make that possible,” she said. “I truly believe we will be able to identify the barriers, overcome obstacles and unite like-minded people who are passionate about changing the trajectory for our students with disabilities.”
In addition to Sharpe’s primary professional roles, she also serves on the board of directors for the Kentucky Council for Children with Behavior Disorders, J.O.Y. Ministries and the Rae of Sunshine Foundation.
Sharpe earned a bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, Rank I and director of special education certification from Western Kentucky University and a doctorate in educational leadership in the fall of 2020 from Liberty University.
Sharpe lives with her husband, Woody, and two children in Columbia.
Born and raised in Louisville, 13-year educator Wheatley began as a special education teacher in Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) and continued as a central office special education administrator. In his role, Wheatley promoted positive post-school outcomes for students with disabilities by coordinating with community agencies and organizations in Jefferson County.
In addition to Wheatley’s professional roles, he has volunteered as a Special Olympics unified coach and Best Buddies Kentucky chapter adviser. Best Buddies International is a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating opportunities for one-to-one friendships, integrated employment, leadership development and inclusive living for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities He currently engages with the Special Olympics mission through his seat on the Education Leaders Network and serves as the Best Buddies Kentucky advisory board chair.
Wheatley is excited to take the community collaboration lessons he learned in JCPS and expand those to a statewide level.
“We know that interagency coordination is a really important component promoting post-transition outcomes for students with disabilities,” he said. “JCPS is in a place where there were a lot of outside agencies, partners and stakeholders that wanted to be a part of supporting and developing transition-age students with disabilities. I know that these partners are across the state as well.”
Wheatley has a bachelor’s and master’s degree from WKU and a doctorate from the University of Kentucky. He completed certifications for director of special education at the University of the Cumberlands and principalship at Murray State University.
Wheatley is an active member of the Jefferson County community, where he lives with his wife and child.