Heather DiFede's interest in special education was sparked as a child by a classroom experience.
DiFede had a classmate who was deaf. Their teacher worked to ensure an inclusive environment. She vividly recalls how the teacher - with whom she's still in touch today - taught the class sign language so that hearing students could communicate with their classmate. DiFede also noted the challenges faced by the girl and her family.
Today, she is an award-winning leader in special education.
DiFede - executive director of San Diego County Office of Education's (SDCOE) East County Special Education Local Plan Area - was named Special Education Administrator of the Year by the Association of California School Administrators (ACSA). This statewide award follows DiFede's regional recognition by ACSA in the same category.
"It's definitely quite an honor, because I know the previous state winners and work with them," DiFede said. "They're a great group of people, and to be considered in their class is very humbling."
The statewide award is one of 21 presented annually to recognize "the outstanding performance and achievements of an individual in the public school system," ACSA said in its announcement.
"On a daily basis, Heather promotes the success of all students by modeling a personal code of ethics and professional leadership," said Carolyn Nunes, SDCOE senior director of special education. "Anyone who has contact with Heather is impressed with her commitment to our students and staff."
Today, DiFede goes above and beyond for the districts and families she serves in East County, not only providing day-to-day support with her team on a local level, but also staying on top of the fiscal and policy issues in special education. "The field of special education is constantly evolving, not only in how we provide services to students but in the laws," she said.
Her office oversees the deaf and hard of hearing program for the East County SELPA. Her team includes five teachers who are deaf and hard of hearing specialists, three audiologists, and one audiology technician.
There is really no typical workday for DiFede. On any given day, she might meet with a parent, conduct site visits and staff evaluations, meet with a district special education director, or write a letter to a legislator regarding special education policy. No matter the task, DiFede is working to make educators', parents', and staff members' jobs a little easier.
"We all have the same goal so if we can work together, it makes the load a little easier," she said. "The problem solving and being able to help others is really exciting."