An art print in Bruce Passman's new office shows a quartet of raccoons staring off into the distance.
At least, that's how it appears at first glance.
A more thorough examination reveals one of the "raccoons" is really a pig with a black eye mask.
The playful print speaks volumes about Passman's philosophy on public education.
"Even people who are different fit in," said Passman, a Kansas University alumnus who on July 1 began his duties as special education director for Lawrence public schools.
In some ways, the job will truly test his passion. He will be challenged to maintain quality services for children with special needs even as funding for special education shrinks with the rest of the budget.
Passman will be responsible for students with disabilities, gifted children and those in English as a Second Language. He'll also administer programs in nursing, social work, early childhood development, American Indian education and juvenile detention services.
Despite the challenges, he said it would be an exciting transition. Passman comes to Lawrence, where he started his career in education back in 1975, from the Kansas Department of Education. He was there for a year, directing special education for the entire state a great gig, except it kept him away from the districts he was trying to help.
"I needed to be closer to where things are really happening," he said.
Things are happening in special education on a scale unheard of when Passman was growing up in the 1950s and '60s in the Shawnee Mission area.
"Most kids with disabilities were either not in school or were in special classrooms, hidden away," he said.
Passman still recalls one of those nearly invisible children he saw occasionally in junior high. The boy, who had cerebral palsy and a shock of red hair, would climb off a bus each day and struggle to walk into the school house, Passman said. Other children constantly tormented him.
Passman always wondered if life would have been different for that boy if the school had met his needs.
"I got into education because I had a desire to help kids like this redheaded kid I remembered from my childhood," said Passman, 53.
He got into the game at just the right time. In 1975, when Passman graduated with his master's degree, the climate for children with special needs in public schools was changing dramatically. That's the year President Gerald Ford signed into law the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, which guaranteed a free, appropriate education for all children with special needs.
Passman was part of a team of educators who traveled across the state preparing teachers for the coming influx of special-needs students and telling parents they finally would be able to bring their children to school.
"Parents would just literally weep," he said.
Passman later earned his doctorate in special education from KU in 1986.
He worked in Lawrence schools as a school psychologist and special education coordinator until 1984, when he left for the Blue Valley school district. Back then, it wasn't the massive district that now competes with Lawrence to attract teachers.
During Passman's 16-year tenure as special education director there, the district grew from 4,000 to 17,000 students and built some 20 new schools.
Alexa Pochowski, assistant state education commissioner who worked with Passman last year at the state department, also was a parent with children in the Blue Valley district for 14 years when Passman was there. She said Passman's emphasis on including special-needs students as much as possible in the regular classroom setting became evident as he helped build the special education program in the growing district.
"You could tell by the models that were set up within the schools themselves that it was very inclusive. You could see the change in terms of how the staffing was provided," Pochowski said. "I saw it over and over again at my sons' schools."
People make the difference
That groundwork already has been laid in the Lawrence school district, where nearly one-third of the 10,000 students receive special services of some kind or another.
Standout programs include early childhood development, autism and the district's partnerships with other community entities, such as Bert Nash and KU, Passman said.
But in order to ensure all children reach their potential, Passman will have to continually evaluate the programs he oversees.
Gifted education needs some fine tuning, he said. Building solid gifted education programs has been difficult for school districts nationwide, Passman said, because there are so few models for who gets services, what being gifted means, whether it's better to leave gifted students in regular classrooms or pull them out and what the content of gifted programs should be.
"It will not be easy because it's a highly visible area," he said. "Everybody has an opinion about what that should look like."
But Passman, who's office book shelf is packed with volumes on what it takes to be a good leader, said he was up for the challenges, in part because he knew the district and the community were full of people committed to educating young people. With that kind of support, budget woes are difficult, but not insurmountable.
"I've been enough different places that I know resources help," Passman said. "But it's people who make the difference."