NEALS celebrated their 20th anniversary with a wonderful two-day conference and gala at the Westford Regency Inn and Conference Center in Westford, MA on April 3-5th. Over 100 guests, including independent school learning specialists, psychologists, therapists, educational consultants, and scholars, attended throughout the two days and the feedback on the event has been extremely positive.
The event kicked off Wednesday night with a board meeting and dinner with invited guests. Attendees were the first to try the NEALS signature teal green cocktails and ensured that every folder was stuffed, name badge was made, and vendor booth was set up before the conference festivities began on Thursday morning.
Thursday was a jam-packed day that started with an uplifting and motivating speech by NEALS President Susan Cole Ross. Suz reminded us of NEALS’ humble roots that started when a small band of learning specialists, led by the legendary Dr. Barbara Kenefick, gathered at Hotchkiss for the first time twenty years ago. She noted, “The evolution of NEALS reflects the growing recognition that smart, capable and successful people can have learning disabilities, and that underrepresented students benefit tremendously from individualized teaching by a learning specialist, and the world reaps the rewards.” Board of Directors Treasurer and Secretary, Melissa Rubin and Elizabeth Radday, honored the work Susan has done as President of NEALS since 2011 with the Barbara Kenefick Service Award. They noted that Susan was the fearless leader and driving force behind the recently completed five-year strategic plan and the lead organizer of the 20th anniversary conference and gala.
Dr. George McCloskey took the stage and gave the first keynote, entitled “Improving Executive Capacities at Multiple Levels.” Dr. McCloskey shared tips and tools for working with students with executive function weaknesses. His afternoon breakout session followed up his morning presentation with in-depth case studies of students with whom he has worked. Also on Thursday afternoon, Sharon Plante offered a break out session on “Technol-O.G.: Enhancing Structural Literacy Instruction with Educational Technology.” Everyone enjoyed a much-needed brain break Thursday afternoon with camaraderie, yoga, a walk, a swim, or just a rest before the gala later that evening.
The 20th Anniversary Gala celebration kicked off with an entertaining and delicious cocktail hour with live entertainment from bassist Bruce Gertz and pianist Phil Wilson, an internationally renowned jazz performer who has dyslexia. On behalf of the Board, Susan Ross honored founding member Joanne Hayhurst with the Founders’ Award and shared more of the history of the founding of NEALS and its 20 years hence (history available on the NEALS website.) NEALS also debuted its original film Reservation with You, which Ross notes was “created as an entertaining, poignant, and lasting gift in return for all the sacrifices learning specialists make for students in need.” Colleagues had opportunities to mingle with friends, old and new, make new professional connections, and share their passion for teaching students with learning differences.
Friday was another busy day with a keynote from Nanci Shepardson and afternoon break-out sessions. Shepherdson spoke brilliantly about “Assistive Technology: What the Research Says About Which Technologies Support Skill Acquisition.” Her engaging talk also allowed time for attendees to test out different assistive technology platforms and apps. In the afternoon Sharon Plante, Noel Foy, and Melissa Garner offered sessions on Technology for Executive Functions, Tips and Tools for Managing Anxiety, and Learning Disabilities versus Literacy Deficits, respectively.
The entire conference was an uplifting celebration of the work of learning specialists as well as an engaging two-days of professional learning opportunities. The expertise of the speakers as well as others in the room results in an event that will ultimately impact over 8,000 students whom NEALS members serve in their classrooms and practices.