Laura Meehan knew her passion for music and students with disabilities would guide her to make a meaningful difference.
In 2009, before graduating from Texas Tech University with a bachelor’s degree in Music Education, a conversation with her peers helped Meehan set a direction for her career.
“My professor (at) Texas Tech had hypothetically mentioned a student with a disability and asked us if we would include the student in our ensembles,” Meehan remembers. “I was shocked when some of my classmates and one of my best friends said they wouldn’t. From then on, I got really interested in special education.”
Working as a pre-service teacher in Lubbock’s Independent School District (ISD) in Texas, Meehan met a few students with disabilities and grew interested in the use of music in the special education classroom. This led her to pursue graduate studies at Florida State University and Texas Tech.
In 2016, Meehan accepted a position as a music specialist for the Caminiti Exceptional Center, a public Title 1 school in Tampa. Since then, she’s provided students with special-needs with differentiated instruction, alternative assessments and an all-around inclusive environment that enables them to explore their creative abilities.
“Through accommodations and adaptations in the classroom, my students still learn to read music, recognize musical attributes, and contribute to ensembles,” Meehan said.
Driven to learn more about policy, Meehan took on leadership roles within her school and began working toward a PhD in Educational Leadership at the University of South Florida (USF). Several factors, such as the flexibility of her program and USF’s reputation for preparing educational leaders, are what Meehan says motivated her to enroll.
“It’s important to me that I receive an education from a university that was recognized for their research, and USF certainly is—it’s a Tier-1 school,” Meehan said. “I’m able to teach and go to school at the same time, and all of the professors I’ve worked with have some type of background in special education research.”
Surrounded by a group of peers from various education settings, Meehan said she networks with district resource teachers, curriculum specialists and several school administrators in her doctoral program. Her studies at USF have enabled her to transfer her knowledge and better support her school's academic functions.
“I like being able to take what I learn and apply it to my classroom the very next day,” Meehan said. “When we’re sitting down for our school improvement plan, I automatically reference articles from classes (at USF) and research I’ve looked into.”
When she’s not studying at the university, Meehan serves as the president-elect for the Tampa Bay Chapter of Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) and advocates for her students by making sure they’re represented in the local community.
Her community involvement is making a direct impact. One project Meehan worked on was with a neighboring school, Mitchell Elementary, to raise awareness about the community of students at Caminiti. The partnership led to the creation of a music video featuring students from both schools and a donation from a classroom at Mitchell, who raised money so Caminiti students can get new learning supplies.
“It was awesome because they weren’t aware that there were students like mine in the district,” Meehan said. “Me and (the classroom’s) fifth-grade teacher, Mr. Jones, made sure that both of our students had the experience of working with someone who might be on a different cognitive level.”
Meehan’s dedication to students, teachers and families at Caminiti has not gone without recognition. Shortly after being named Caminiti’s Teacher of the Year in 2020, Meehan was honored as the 2021 Teacher of the Year for Hillsborough County Public Schools. Earning this award, she says, brings a spotlight not just to her but to the work of every exceptional educator.
“It is such a privilege to represent all the teachers in Hillsborough, especially coming from an alternative education center that serves students with disabilities,” Meehan said. “I’m excited to meet other teachers in all content areas to see what we can do from here on out to make sure our students are learning in a well-rounded and equitable way.”
Meehan is in the running for the statewide Teacher of the Year title for Florida, which will be announced in June 2021. She aims to graduate from USF in 2023 with her doctorate and continue her work advocating for exceptional students beyond the classroom.
Her advice for aspiring educators with an interest in special education is to go for it.
“Get creative, meet the needs of your students and make sure you utilize your resources,” Meehan said. “There’s a group of us out there who are very passionate about what we do, and we’re more than willing to help in any way we can.”
USF's Doctor of Philosophy in Educational Leadership is designed for individuals who aspire to build an academic career focused on conducting research and analysis in the multidisciplinary field of educational leadership and policy studies, or who wish to build an administrative career focused on innovative and inquiry-based leadership.