Supporting Those Who Work with Students with Special Needs
By Kim Underwood
Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools
AUGUST 7, 2019 – Mary Todd Allen knew in elementary school that, when she grew up, she wanted a job that enabled her to help young people with special needs.
As an adult, she first did that as a special-education teacher at a high school teacher in Virginia, then as a college professor in Virginia and North Carolina, and, most recently, as the Director for Middle School Exceptional Children programs for Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools.
Now, 36 years into her career of serving students with special needs and the adults who work with them, Todd has become the new Chief Program Officer for the school system’s Exceptional Children Division.
In that role, she now supervises the nearly 1,000 adults who serve the school system’s 7,700 students with special needs. Helping those students requires adults working in a number of roles – teacher, teacher assistant, speech/language pathologist, interpreter, occupational therapist, physical therapist, nurse.
Allen has the gifts and passion to do that job well, say those who work with her. Susan Battigelli, the school system’s Program Director for Speech Language Pathology, Deaf/Hard of Hearing, & Assistive Technology had this to say:
“Mary Todd Allen is child-centered. Decisions are made based on what will have the most positive impact on students.”
“Mary Todd Allen is well-read, with a curious mind to always know more. She’s a great listener who recognizes that everyone has a unique perspective.”
“Mary Todd Allen is a big-picture thinker and planner. As a leader, she asks for input and values everyone’s contribution. She speaks to the overarching goal which grounds and unifies us as administrators.”
“Mary Todd Allen pursues change in a way that brings people on board. She values input from colleagues at the ground level, before change even starts.”
Allen was born in Bluefield, W.Va. She was the youngest of seven children – six girls and one boy. When she was young, her parents divorced, and she and her siblings moved to Dublin, Va., where their grandparents lived.
Dublin was a town with a single traffic light. In 1960, the population was 1,436.
“In 1960, there were only 88 African-Americans,” Todd said.
Her grandparents had a farm that ran along a road that came to a dead end. Their two-story, clapboard farm house served as the anchor home for the farm, and other members of extended family lived in homes here and there along the road.
“The farm ran behind all of our houses,” she said.
Everyone in the family worked the farm. They grew green beans and many other vegetables and had cows and pigs and chickens.
“We raised everything we ate except sugar and flour,” she said.
When Allen and her siblings first came to Dublin, they lived in their grandparents’ home. Over time, different siblings would live with different aunts and uncles. Her aunts, uncles and cousins were all great, Allen said. She especially treasures her time with two aunts had no children of their own and gave her extra attention.
“I had some of the best aunts in the world,” Allen said.
Early on, Allen and her siblings would visit their father, who still lived in Bluefield, and their mother, who had moved to Washington. When Allen was 12, her mother moved back to Dublin and re-entered their lives more fully.
When Allen and her siblings moved to Dublin, the local elementary and high schools were not yet integrated, and African-American students would go to a school about 12 miles away.
“That is where my sisters started school,” she said.
By the time Allen and her brother, Walter, started school, the local schools had been integrated, and they were among the first African-Americans to attend the elementary school.
She was well aware of how momentous that was. The principal was there to see they were taken care of, and her grandparents had talked to them.
“I was very aware because my grandparents kept it before us that we were not to be mistreated,” she said.
Allen had an older cousin with Down syndrome. His name was Ronnie Rollins. In those days, schools didn’t have programs for students with Down syndrome and other special needs, and such students might just stay home. That was the case with Ronnie.
“He wasn’t allowed to go to school,” Allen said. “It made him very sad that he couldn’t go to school with us.”
Every day, after school, she would stop at his house, and teach him what she had learned that day while they played school.
“It was his favorite game,” she said.
Although other family members would also participate, there was no question that she was the official teacher.
For the most part, people in the community treated him well. Some, though, would tease him or exclude him from group activities. Seeing that happen would upset her, and, it ignited a desire in her to do what she could to stop that happening to anyone. That feeling burns inside her to this day.
From those experiences, Allen knew that, when she grew up, she wanted a job that would enable her to help young people with special needs like her cousin, Ronnie.
From early on, Allen was also an avid reader.
Along with working the farm, her uncles and aunts held jobs. An uncle might work in a furniture factory or on a road crew. An aunt might work in a garment factory or as a domestic. Sometimes, families would give books to an aunt who worked in their home.
In a barn, her grandparents had created a special reading area with a bookcase and an overstuffed chair. When the family got a new book, it would be added to the bookcase. Allen would go to the reading area and devour whatever book caught her attention. She remembers reading William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying when she was 7.
Going into high school, she was on the “vocational track” – a guidance counselor suggested she think about taking stenography. Although Allen had a cousin who lived in Tennessee who had gone to college, no one in her more immediate family had. So she didn’t know what you did to make that possible.
As she was beginning high school, though, she had the good fortune to have a couple of teachers who saw her potential and made sure that she was put into the college track.
“That transformed everything for me,” Allen said.
She’s also grateful for the school secretary who showed her what she needed to do to go to college.
After she graduated from Pulaski County High in 1977, she headed to Old Dominion College (now University) with the help of scholarships from such organizations as the NAACP and her family’s church – the Church of God in Christ, which her grandparents had helped establish.
Her research had shown her she could make more money as a psychologist than as a teacher so, early on, she planned to become a psychologist who helped young people with special needs. Once she discovered how much she enjoyed tutoring young people with special needs, she decided to become a teacher after all.
After a detour to San Diego State University, she returned to Virginia and enrolled in Radford University.
Every week, one of her special aunts would mail her a box filled with such treats as chocolate cake. Her friends soon learned to keep a lookout for the arrival of the box and would make sure that they were around when Allen opened it.
In 1982, Allen graduated from Radford with a bachelor’s degree in Special Education, with a concentration in learning disabilities.
She became a Special Education teacher at Pulaski County High School. In the early 1990s, she became a Transition Vocational Evaluator at the high school. In 1992, Allen began working for the Virginia Department of Education as a research associate based at Virginia Tech. She also worked part-time as an adjunct professor at Radford, where she worked with students working on their master’s degree in Special Education.
She earned her own master’s degree at Virginia Polytechnic and began the process of earning a doctorate.
Allen met her future husband – Rudy Allen – while living in Virginia. She and a friend had gone out to a restaurant for dinner. When the bill came, Allen discovered that she didn’t have a credit card with her. She wrote a check, which the waiter picked up and tore in half in front of them.
Seeing the hubbub, Rudy Allen came over. He introduced himself and offered to pick up the tab for the women.
“I saw his heart, and we were soon married,” Allen said.
When she married, she made a point to keep her maiden name as an integral part of her name, and, over the years, some people have used “Mary Todd” as if it were double first name.
The Allens have one child – a daughter named Jordan Brooks. She teaches elementary school for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and was named the school system’s 2016 Teacher of the Year. Brooks and her husband have a son named Jaxson.
The Allens moved to North Carolina in the late 1990s when Rudy Allen was transferred here.
Here in North Carolina, she taught first at N.C. A&T State University and then at Winston-Salem State.
“My mission was to touch as many teachers as I could,” she said.
She joined Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools in 2004 as the Transition Coordinator for the school system’s Occupational Course of Study (OCS) program.
“I was ready to go back to schools and families,” she said.
Bridgette Coger, who is an EC Resource Teacher at Walkertown Middle, credits Allen with helping her find her calling.
“Mrs. Todd Allen is part of the reason I am an EC teacher to this day,” Coger said. “When I was a teacher assistant she encouraged me to further my education to become a certified teacher. She checked in regularly and offered any assistance needed.”
“She became my immediate (unofficial) mentor without being asked to do so. She is a natural-born leader. Imagine my happiness and surprise one semester at Winston Salem State University when my schedule said that my professor was none other than Mary Todd Allen.”
“She brought what no other professor did to the college, the real deal. I stayed in contact with her even after graduation, as I left WS/FCS to explore a charter school opportunity. Shortly thereafter, Mary brought me back to the fold where I remain.”
“Mary is dedicated to children first, especially those with exceptionalities. She supports her staff to ensure that they, too, place children first above all. She is super-smart, kind and compassionate. To sum that up...she knows her stuff. She does not harbor knowledge, but rather shares it.”
“I believe that Mrs. Todd Allen will remain true to her passion and never waiver. Now she has the opportunity to touch the entire fold of educators and not just the middle grades. I welcome this unification.”
Allen’s faith is integral to her life.
“I love the Lord and I serve Him with gladness,” she said.
For 10 years, she supervised a food pantry. She likes to cook. Chili is one of her specialties. She and her husband like to take trips to such places at the Caribbean. She has done extensive research into her family’s background. Along with finding ancestors who were slaves and indentured servants, she found Caucasian and Blackfoot Indian DNA.
She still loves to read. She and others in the EC Division are starting a book club. The first book will be Michelle Obama’s book Becoming.
Allen said that it had never been her ambition to become the head of the Exceptional Children’s Division. When the position opened after Sam Dempsey retired, though, she came to see it as an opportunity to take the next step in supporting those who work so hard helping students with special needs.
“This is an incredibly talented group of professionals,” Allen said. “They get the job done every day for schools. They don’t require a lot of supervision.”
“They require support and leadership.”
Since she officially assumed the position on July 1, one of her stated goals is to shift the context in which everyone thinks about helping students with special needs.
Each special-needs student has an IEP (Individualized Education Program). Those tend to focus on remediation. She wants to sift the focus to standards-based IEP goals that focus on students’ needs in relation to their grade-level standards. In addition to serving the students in their lives after graduating, this shift in focus would keep achievement gaps from growing.
With 14 different categories in which a special-needs child can be assigned, coming to agreement on what families and people in the school system think is best for a student can become complicated.
Shortly after Lisa Bodenheimer became the principal at Wiley Magnet Middle, she found herself in the midst of a complex case, and she appreciates all that Allen did to help her.
“As a beginning principal,” Bodenheimer said, “I started with a ‘high profile’ EC case. Mary did not hesitate to provide me with the necessary support needed to navigate frequent parent interactions, design an IEP that met the needs of the student, offer guidance when the team was feeling overwhelmed and participate in meetings that lasted hours.”
“Something everyone may not know about Mary is that she loves kitchen and cooking gadgets! When we know there will be a meeting that will be long, she brings her food (lunch and dinner) in one of them!”
“When there was work to be done to prepare for another ‘high profile’ EC case, Mary was right beside me, working into the evening or holding phone conferences for me to ‘think out loud’ regarding next steps and best practices. I never felt as if my staff or I were alone in navigating the intricacies of the situation. If I start to get anxious or worked up about anything EC related, she calms me with an assurance that we are in it together to the end.”
“She has a vast knowledge of special education and when she gives advice or direction, you can be sure that it is sound and appropriate. She is student centered and holds EC staff to high expectations in order to meet student needs. However, she is also encouraging and offers the support and insight to help them as they grow towards those expectations.”
“I have appreciated Mary as a mentor. She seems to know when I need an encouraging word and she never fails to offer one. She motivates me to consider self-care and challenges me to be a better leader. I believe that she has outstanding ideas that will help our district as we focus on improving outcomes for our students with disabilities.”