By Shawn Regan
---- — HAVERHILL — The school district has filled one of its top jobs, which carries a salary of close to $100,000.
Theresa Senio, who lives in Delaware but is from the area, was approved yesterday by the School Committee to be Haverhill’s special education director. She replaces Maury Covino, who retired at the end of the last school year after 22 years here.
The job comes with an annual salary around $100,000, subject to contract negotiations, school officials said. Covino was making $110,000 a year when he left.
Senio is an administrative superintendent in charge of educational programs for the Delaware Department of Services for Children, Youth and Their Families — a position she has held since 2004. She said that department provides services for about 49,000 children annually.
Prior to that, Senio was a special education director from 1997 to 2002 at a three-town school district based in Claremont, N.H. She said that district includes several inner-city schools and serves a student population similar to Haverhill’s.
In an interview yesterday with the School Committee, Senio said she has many years of experience dealing with exactly the kinds of challenges that Haverhill faces: A large population of students with learning disabilities and limited money in the budget.
She said her philosophy is creating a climate in which everyone works together to provide services to students with learning disabilities, with the goal of integrating them with the regular student population before they graduate.
“They are not going to have a paraprofessional behind them after they leave us, so we’re not doing them any favors if we don’t try to teach them to do it things by themselves,” Senio said. “There are students who will always need special services, such as someone with a brain injury. But there are others who can be returned to the mainstream if we are doing our job.”
Senio said the key to having positive results with students with learning disabilities is evaluating them properly.
“We need to do a good job understanding their disability and how it manifests itself, and then have goals we are working toward,” she said.
Senio said it’s been her experience that teachers are too focused on behavioral issues.
“We need to stop talking about behavior and start talking about learning,” she said. “What support do they need to learn? That change in thinking can take a long time to sink in.”
Fielding a question from a School Committee member, Senio said she is aware of the district’s successful and popular special education program at the St. James Alternative School, but not the details. The program is credited with saving the city millions of dollars because it allows students with learning disabilities to be educated in the district, rather then sent to expensive schools outside Haverhill. The school also generates money by accepting students from outside of Haverhill.
“If you are going to have a separate program, there should be a reason for it and the goal should be to return students to the mainstream at some point,” Senio said. “But I would never say I’m going to change something without observing it first.”
Senio said that in Delaware, she oversaw a program aimed at teaching special needs students job and career skills.
“We emphasized reading and reading comprehension,” she said.
Another program there modeled the workplace, she said. Students in it practiced filling out job applications, interviewing for jobs and learning how to dress appropriately in the workplace, she said.
Senio said she knows what it’s like to work in a community with financial constraints and which closely watches spending.
“In Claremont, I presented the budget every year and it was a challenge because the community and the local taxpayers saw the special education budget as a big money drain,” she said. “I know how to be efficient and cost-conscious.”
Senio’s hiring was approved 5-0 by the committee. Mayor James Fiorentini and committee member Joseph Bevilacqua did not attend the meeting.
Superintendent James Scully said the mayor interviewed Senio on a prior occasion and that Fiorentini supported the appointment.
“Her focus here is going to be improving how we evaluate kids and to help us get better at using a team approach,” Scully said.
Senio said she is from Massachusetts and that she is looking forward to moving back here with her husband, who is retired.
“We are coming home,” she told the committee. “We plan to be here for the long-term.”
The committee is also looking for a business manager to replace Kara Kosmes, the district’s assistant superintendent of finance who is leaving at the end of the school year for a similar position at Whittier Regional Vocational Technical High School.