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 Getting to Know SDCOE: Carolyn Nunes Focuses on Positive Relationships

San Diego County Office of Education's executive director of special education, Carolyn Nunes, keeps a note taped near her phone. "Smile," it reads. She calls it a reminder that helps her build and maintain positive working relationships.

"Even if the person on the other end of the phone can't see you, he or she can hear you smile. It makes a difference when you're talking to someone, especially if you're talking to someone who's upset."

As complicated as special education is, with complex regulations, high costs, and passionate people on all sides of the issue, it's not uncommon for tensions to be high. 

Nunes, who has worked for SDCOE for more than 10 years and who has been involved in special education for nearly three decades, takes it all in stride.

"I'm always up to something crazy to entertain myself," she said, "because I really do love to laugh."

When she's not laughing, she's working to oversee special education services for Friendship School and Momentum Learning campuses, and Literacy First, the charter school authorized by SDCOE.

But what about the Special Education Local Plan Areas, or SELPAs? And what about Davila Day School and North County Academy, two schools operated by SDCOE for students with special needs?

"None of those are under me," Nunes explained. "We work together, though, and we all report to Don [Buchheit, interim assistant superintendent of Student Services and Programs]."

Nunes described her team's work as falling into three main areas: collaboration with non-public schools and other agencies, professional development around "bigger" topics that are relevant to the districts in each SELPA, and direct services to kids who attend Friendship School and Momentum Learning campuses.

Friendship School serves a maximum of 50 students at a time from six South County school districts. Of the 1,480 students attending Momentum Learning schools on any given day, about 350 have identified special needs.

Nunes, who is such a fan of organizing that she goes to Office Depot to relax, doesn't do this work alone. Her team includes the principal and five teachers at Friendship School and nearly two dozen teachers in Momentum Learning, as well as classified support staff, a lead psychologist, coordinator, and a speech therapist.

"They are amazing people," said Nunes. "Because they do their job so well, a lot of my job is to keep them updated and keep away from them the stuff that keeps them from doing their jobs, like attorneys and litigation."