A Special Educator


The educational plight of the special needs child has been well documented by social scientists and scholars throughout the course of U.S. History. Ever since the Civil Rights era of the 1960s, children with disabilities have received ever-improving care and attention–especially in our nation’s public schools. 

Today, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that, “nearly one out of every five children in the United States has a special healthcare need. Children and youth with special healthcare needs require more care for their physical, developmental, behavioral or emotional differences than their typically developing peers. A special healthcare need can include physical, intellectual and developmental disabilities.”

In an effort to remain in compliance with state and federal regulations, and to keep abreast of current trends in special education, the Lake Ridge New Tech Schools partnered with the Northwest Indiana Special Education Cooperative (NISEC). NISEC is a regional consortium made up of several area school districts, with a shared goal of equipping schools with highly trained and professional special education teachers and counselors.

As Director of Special Education, the task of coordinating special education initiatives at LRNTS is the responsibility of Dr. Rebecca “Becca” Harkema.

Harkema Photo
Rebecca “Becca” Harkema Ed.D, Director of Special Education LRNTS

Dr. Harkema was born and raised in nearby Lansing, Illinois. She and her husband, Kyle, now reside in northwest Indiana with their six-year-old daughter, Evie, and their two cats and dog.

EDJ: As Director of Special Education at LRNT, what does your job consist of?

RBH: I oversee and supervise the NISEC teachers, evaluate them, and help support them by providing professional development and training to make sure they have what they need to be successful.

EDJ: Special education has become your life’s passion, but you almost did not go into it. It seems like fate took control of your destiny.

RBH: Yeah, when I was a senior in high school at Illiana Christian, I knew that I wanted to be a teacher. Illiana Christian had a program called Senior Service. Seniors could leave for two class periods out of the day and go serve somewhere. I signed up for a general education elementary classroom, but all the slots were full, so I was put in a special education classroom.

EDJ: How did that make you feel?

RBH: I was very nervous at first, but that is when I realized my love for special education. After that, I decided to major in special education in college.

EDJ: Where did you go to school?

RBH: I received my undergraduate degree and licenses in special education from Trinity Christian in Palos Heights, Illinois. I received my educational doctorate in curriculum and instruction, with an emphasis in special education, from Loyola University in Chicago.

EDJ: There have been major improvements in the treatment of special needs students, but there are still some obstacles to overcome. What are some of the challenges faced by parents of special needs students?

RBH: I think for parents, especially early on, it’s important they realize there are avenues for early intervention. They need to make sure they get involved with First Steps. They should have a pediatrician in their lives to make sure they get early intervention–that is so important.

EDJ: I understand you have firsthand experience with the very personal issues parents with special needs children face.

RBH: My daughter has ADHD. My daughter was born prematurely; she has mild cerebral palsy. In a situation like that, you have to recognize that your child has gifts and strengths and talents and a purpose in this world–even though it might not be the purpose or gift that you thought it was going to be. It might be something different, it looks different.

There is a story out there called “Welcome to Holland.” I recommend people Google it. It is a story about a family that was planning a trip to Disneyland, but their plane lands in Holland. They get off the plane and find that Holland has some nice things to offer. That is my analogy. It was not what you were expecting, but it is beautiful in its own special way.

EDJ: How has raising a child with special needs changed you?

RBH: It has given me a whole new perspective. I was in special education for 11 years before having my own child. I approached counseling parents as a teacher. After my daughter was born, I felt the guilt many parents have because the cerebral palsy was due to prematurity. As a mom, I felt like I had done something wrong, or that I didn’t do something [right] during my pregnancy. You shouldn’t feel that way, but you do. So, I can empathize with parents as they are experiencing it. It has made me a better educator.

Living it, I can talk very realistically to families. I can share some of my good stories and some of my frustrations.

EDJ: How are we doing with special education here at LRNT?

RBH: It is exciting. We used to share our interventions with Highland, but because our numbers have grown, we are now on our own and that’s great. We can really hone in on what we want to do for our students here at Lake Ridge.

We do a good job with inclusion in our middle school and high school, we do a lot of co-teaching, and we have a lot of in-class support. We only remove students from general education classes when it is absolutely necessary. We have some good things going on, and we definitely want to focus more on how we meet [students’] social and emotional needs.

EDJ: Dr. Harkema, I want to thank you for your openness and honesty. I definitely feel our students are in good hands under your leadership.

RBH: Well, thank you. I appreciate that.