Tampa, Florida - A unanimous vote by the Hillsborough School Board approves the appointment of Maryann Parks as Hillsborough's new Exceptional Education Student director.
Parks says it's a job she's prepared her entire life for and one she is not afraid of to get started.
It's a role filled with challenges and Parks seems to know where to begin. She says, "Our goal starting today is to make the connection, that includes all stake-holders, parents, students, staff and community.. so to make sure everyone has a voice."
Parks takes over as the district does a self evaluation and rebuilding of its ESE program after two students died last year.
7-year-old Isabella Herrera suffered respiratory distress and died while on the school bus in January. Her family is suing the district.
In October, Jennifer Caballero, 11, walked off campus and drowned in a nearby pond.
A week later, a special needs student at Pierce Middle School walked off campus and six miles home. The child made it home safely.
Back in September, video showed a school bus driver kicking an autistic girl off the bus, causing the child to break her ankle. The bus driver is charged with aggravated child abuse.
"I'm concerned a lot of kids are getting hurt," says Claudia Roberts, mother of an autistic teenager. Roberts is also an advocate for special needs children with a Bay area law firm and sits on the Hillsborough School district's advisory committee for ESE kids. She believes the school board made a good choice.
Roberts says, "I like Maryann, she's straightforward. I think she has a get-in-there, roll-up-your-sleeves attitude. She seems she wants to get thing accomplished."
But Roberts says Parks faces many challenges. She says, "I think the culture in Hillsborough is different. I think the culture is more defensive."
Critics say the district should have gone outside for a new director. Parks has been with the school district for 34 years.
Jose Colindres with The Brink Foundation says, "I don't think the district has any credibility to appoint someone who's been in the system for more than 30 years. It's the same old, same old status quo."
Parks says anyone who works with special needs kids knows there is no such thing as "same old, same old." Parks says, "I've never been afraid of change this department is not afraid of change."
Parks supporters and critics do agree on what the new ESE director needs to change. Roberts says, "Be more open, less defensive, listen to parents, getting parents more involved."
Colindres adds, "I think the message is you have to be transparent, honest, be there for kids and listen to parents."
Parks says her goal is to do those things and improve training and recruitment of special needs teachers, but she says everything she does will be with one objective.
"What we need to remember it's all about the kids and student outcome," she says.