2021 Speakers


2021 Speaker Bios

Cynthia Alvarez began her professional career in education as a family social worker. She soon realized that her true calling was educating children, while supporting their families. She earned a Master's degree in Education from Temple University and has been working with children and families ever since. She taught in the Philadelphia public schools for over 30 years. She has worked within all grade levels throughout her teaching tenure including Master-level students at West Chester University. Ms. Alvarez has served as a mentor to new teachers and as a director of Special Education at the School District of Philadelphia. Despite having retired in June, 2020, she has continued her work with families especially those experiencing trauma, homelessness and food insecurity. Cynthia also serves as a member of the SEAP ( Special Education Advisory Panel) and the state’s special education monitoring team with the Bureau of Special Education in Pennsylvania.

Hamish Brewer is an educational disrupter who transcends the status quo and typical educational norms, constantly calling on his students to "Be Relentless.” He was recognized in 2017 as the NAESP Nationally Distinguished Principal and Virginia Principal of the Year and has also been recognized as the 2016 VAESP School Bell Award and ASCD Virginia Impact Award. In 2018, Mr. Brewer was named a Northern Virginian of the Year by Northern Virginia Magazine and the 2018 Principal of the Year for the national publication Education Dive. Currently a doctoral student in Virginia, Mr. Brewer serves as the Federal Relations Coordinator on the Board of Directors with the Virginia Association of Elementary School Principals. He is a school turnaround and school improvement specialist, working with some of the most at-risk students in the United States.
Elsa Cárdenas-Hagan, Ed.D., CCC/SLP, CDT, CALT, QI is a bilingual speech and language pathologist, a certified teacher, dyslexia therapist, certified academic language therapist, and a qualified instructor. She is President of the Valley Speech Language and Learning Center in Brownsville, Texas and works with the Texas Institute for Measurement, Evaluation and Statistics at the University of Houston. Dr. Cárdenas-Hagan has spent the last 15 years working in national research projects sponsored by the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development and the Institute of Education Sciences, with each national project relating to the development of language and literacy skills among Spanish-speaking English learners. She is currently the Chairperson of the National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities and has worked with teams of researchers designing assessments and interventions for English learners who struggle with reading. 
Mary Cox is the parent of four students who have attended Derry Area School District, including one child who is still currently enrolled in the middle school.  She has participated in numerous family focus groups at the school and engaged in decision-making processes.  Mary is an educator and teaches the Grade 6 class “World Regions.”

Everett Deibler is a Liaison for the Pennsylvania Youth Leadership Network (PYLN). For over a decade, PYLN has promoted youth leadership across the commonwealth. Currently, PYLN is a network that consists of a Governing Board that supports Affiliate groups across Pennsylvania. The Network is led and driven by inclusive organizations of youth and young adults with and without disabilities in schools, community agencies, and institutions of higher education.
Lisa Dubich has served as the principal of Derry Area Middle School for the past five years. She appreciates working with middle schoolers, as she can observe her students gaining independence , taking on challenges, and preparing for the world of high school.  Lisa began her career in education as a science teacher and has completed extensive study in curriculum and instruction.  She is the mother of one daughter – a sixth grader who will soon be in middle school. From the time Lisa began working in the principal leadership role, she has been committed to building family-school partnerships, especially by increasing authentic family voice in decision-making activities. 

Cindy Duch is the Director of Parent Advising for the PEAL Center. In addition to her work at the PEAL Center, Cindy is the current vice-chairperson for the Local Task Force (LTF) for the Rights of Education in Allegheny County, IU 3. Cindy also serves the disability community as a member of the PA Rehabilitation Council and chairperson of its Transition/IDEA Committee. She is a Commissioner on the PA Employment First Oversight Commission, and she also serves as a peer monitor assisting the PA Department of Education in monitoring the Special Education Departments of School Districts in Pennsylvania. She has a B.S.B.A. in Economics from Robert Morris University.
Batya Elbaum, Ph.D. is a professor in the School of Education and Human Development at the University of Miami. As a researcher, she has published numerous studies related to parent engagement in special education, social and learning challenges of students with disabilities, and services and outcomes for infants, toddlers, and young children with developmental delays. She serves as a consultant to multiple states on the collection, analysis, and use of data within the special education accountability system.  For more than a decade, Dr. Elbaum has worked closely with the Pennsylvania Department of Education and PaTTAN to analyze, interpret, and disseminate results of the Pennsylvania statewide survey of parents of students receiving special education services.
Graham Fletcher has served in education as a classroom teacher, math instructional lead, and currently as a math specialist. Mr. Fletcher’s work with math progressions and problem-based lessons has led him to speak to audiences throughout North America and beyond. He is continually advocating for best practice in elementary mathematics by seeking new and innovative ways to support students and teachers in their development of conceptual understanding.
Keith Focht is currently a Bureau of Special Education Adviser supporting parent support groups called the Local Task Force, which encompasses the 29 regions across the commonwealth. Mr. Focht has been in the special education arena for over 40 years serving as a teacher, education consultant, a special education director, and now as an adviser at the BSE.
Erin D. Gilsbach, Esq., is a nationally recognized speaker on school law issues and the founder and Executive Director of EdLaw Interactive, a professional development entity that specializes in legal training for educators and school administrators. She is also a practicing school law attorney with the Pennsylvania law firm of Steckel & Stopp, a member of the Board of Directors of NSBA’s Council of School Attorneys (COSA), and Past President of the PSBA Solicitors Association. She provides legal consulting and training services to schools and education-related organizations in the areas of special education, development of legally defensible policies and procedures, and many other school law topics. Ms. Gilsbach is a frequent presenter and author for the NSBA, COSA, the LRP Institute, the National Business Institute (NBI), the Pennsylvania Bar Institute (PBI), and many other state and national organizations. Ms. Gilsbach has served for several years at the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s Office of Chief Counsel, and she recently published "Student Health Services under the IDEA and Section 504" through LRP Publications, a practical and comprehensive guide to legal compliance when educating students with health-related needs and a great reference for anyone who works with students with health-related needs.
Tyrone C. Howard, Ph.D. is a professor in the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he also serves as Associate Dean for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion. His research examines culture, race, teaching, and learning, and he has published several bestselling books exploring these topics, including “Expanding College Access for Urban Youth.” As the director and founder of the Black Male Institute at UCLA, Dr. Howard leads an interdisciplinary group of scholars, practitioners, community members, and policymakers dedicated to improving the educational experiences and life chances of males of color. He was the recipient of the 2015 UCLA Distinguished Teaching Award, and in 2016 and 2017, Dr. Howard was listed by Education Week as one of the 60 most influential scholars in the nation informing educational policy, practice, and reform.
Alexandria Hrasok is a Liaison for the Pennsylvania Youth Leadership Network (PYLN). For over a decade, PYLN has promoted youth leadership across the commonwealth. Currently, PYLN is a network that consists of a Governing Board that supports Affiliate groups across Pennsylvania. The Network is led and driven by inclusive organizations of youth and young adults with and without disabilities in schools, community agencies, and institutions of higher education.
Devin Kearns, Ph.D. is an associate professor in the Department of Educational Psychology at UConn. He researches reading disability—including dyslexia—in school-age children. His research focuses on linking educational practice to cognitive science and neuroscience in collaboration with colleagues at Haskins Laboratories and the Brain Imaging Research Center at UConn. They examine how the brain changes across many reading lessons underlying reading improvement, and they test the effects of novel ways of teaching reading on students’ neurological processing while reading. He and his collaborators are also developing and validating a game-based dyslexia screening app with the APPRISE Project. Dr. Kearns has seven years of classroom experience as a teacher, literacy coach, and reading specialist and still regularly provides professional development for schools and districts and models reading lessons to help teachers use evidence-based reading instruction.
Joan Kester, Ed.D. is an Assistant Professor of Special Education & Disability Studies at George Washington University, Graduate School of Education and Human Development, and she receives national recognition for her work in the successful transition of youth with disabilities. Dr. Kester is the Program Director of the Interdisciplinary Secondary Transition Program, where scholars learn evidence-based secondary transition practices. Her primary research has been through action research, where youth, families, and stakeholders are engaged in action planning to improve transition practices. Dr. Kester is the Principal Investigator of an OSEP personnel preparation grant to support scholars to address personnel shortages in working with students with autism or brain injury in secondary transition. She is also the Principal Investigator of the Transition Quality Empowerment Project, funded by the Pennsylvania Development Disabilities Council, with the purpose of the project to collaborate with schools and communities in a rural, urban, and suburban area to evaluate and improve transition practices.
Shauna King is a former principal, PBIS coordinator, and classroom teacher with over 20 years of experience in public and non-public school settings. Ms. King serves as adjunct faculty for LaSalle University and as a school climate coach for the University of Maryland Positive Schools Center. Her experience and passion have led to invitations to co-present with education expert Eric Jensen (Author of “Teaching with Poverty in Mind”) and to share with national and international audiences. She is the author of “School Smart: It’s More Than Just Reading and Writing” and multiple journal articles.

Lisbeth Little is a family advisor with HUNE. She conducts parent training sessions in both Spanish and English,  hosts HUNE’s Andy’s Cafe, a bilingual English-Spanish parent support group, and provides education advocacy for families throughout Pennsylvania. Mrs. Little has a Master's degree in Business Administration from Holy Family University, a Bachelors of Business Administration from Temple University, holds a Special Education Advocate (S.E.A.T.) designation from COPAA, and is a graduate of Temple University’s Institute on Disabilities Competence and Confidence, Partners in Policymaking (C2P2) Early Intervention program. She is a mother of four children who have their unique talents and challenges. Mrs. Little is originally from Guatemala and understands the values of the Latino community. She is dedicated to reaching Latino families and Pennsylvania families, helping them understand their child’s disability, their  unique education needs, and their rights to succeed in school.

Temple S. Lovelace, Ph.D., BCBA-D is an associate professor of Special Education at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her research centers on the examination of the intersectionality of disability and race, with particular interest in creating innovative, culturally sustaining academic and behavioral interventions for students with emotional/behavioral disorders, learning disabilities, and Autism Spectrum Disorders. During her tenure in Pittsburgh, Dr. Lovelace has focused on creating equitable learning spaces that center the voices of youth, teachers, and families in Allegheny County. Over the last eleven years, her work in Pittsburgh through community-engaged teaching and research has been focused on repairing relationships and reducing the trauma that is felt in many educational contexts by culturally and linguistically diverse students with and without disabilities. As a Deeper Learning Equity Fellow, Dr. Lovelace examined the role of innovation as a tool for liberation for middle- and high-school students across the region. As a graduate of Ohio State University and a doctoral-level board-certified behavior analyst, she has focused her research on the principles of behavior analysis and education in urban contexts.

Jamie Miller is a mother from Montgomery County who has an elementary-school-aged child named Nate. Jamie is passionate about advocating for her son and for other people and families living with disabilities, by working with school and government leaders and by attending training opportunities like the PDE Conference.

Barry D. Morgenstern, Ph.D. has worked with students with autism and other developmental disabilities for over 25 years. He holds a master's degree in Behavior Analysis and Therapy from Southern Illinois University and a Ph.D. in Special Education and Applied Behavior Analysis from Ohio State University. He is currently the CEO of POOGI for ABA.
Kent Pekel, Ph.D. is an educational leader who has sought to bridge research, practice, and policy to help young people from marginalized communities learn and thrive. Dr. Pekel is currently President and CEO of Search Institute, an internationally recognized non-profit organization that conducts applied research and develops practical resources that enhance the capacity of schools, youth programs, and other organizations to help young people be and become their best selves. Among other recognition, in 2018, Search Institute received the Award for Organizational Excellence in Research and Programming for Youth from the Society for Research on Adolescence. Prior to joining Search Institute in 2012, Dr. Pekel served as the founding Executive Director of the University of Minnesota’s College Readiness Consortium and as Executive Director of Research and Development in the Saint Paul Public Schools. He served in several senior staff positions during the Clinton Administration, including as a White House Fellow assigned to the Director of the CIA, Special Advisor to the Deputy Secretary of State, and Special Assistant to the Deputy Secretary of Education. Dr. Pekel holds a B.A. in East Asian Studies from Yale University, a Master’s in Education from Harvard University, and a Doctorate in Education from the University of Minnesota.
Diane Perry has twenty years of education, advocacy, and family leadership under her belt. She is the Eastern Region Parent Advisor for the PEAL Center in Philadelphia. In addition to her work at PEAL, Ms. Perry serves as a member of the State Special Education Advisory (SEAP) Panel. Ms. Perry’s son, David, received special education services; he is currently attending college, working part time, and is Secretary of the Board at Self Advocates United as 1 (SAU1).
Jennifer Peszek, Ed. D.  has worked in Abington School District for seventeen years. She taught Autistic Support for seven years before moving into a position as a Special Education Supervisor at the elementary level, which she has held for the last ten years. Dr. Peszek believes that open and transparent communication between school and home is important to work through any obstacles that we may face along the way in educating each child. She is a strong advocate for inclusive practices and believes every child with an IEP deserves the same opportunities as their peers.
Magda Rodriguez moved to the United States after receiving a law degree in Colombia and has worked in the immigration field for several years. After establishing her own family and experiencing the process of raising two children, she became passionate about parenting issues and began work as a family engagement leader for a nonprofit organization offering services in the Boston Public Schools. In 2012, Magda joined the Families First team as a Parenting Educator and facilitated parenting and professional workshops in the Boston area. Currently, she oversees all the different aspects of Families First parenting programs, including program quality control and family engagement strategies.
Adam Saenz, Ph.D., D.MIN., is a licensed psychologist and CEO of the Applied EQ Group. As a psychologist, author, and emotional intelligence expert, Dr. Saenz has worked in the education and mental health fields for over twenty years. He has worked in collaboration with the College of Education at Texas A&M University, including the Department of Human Resource Development, the Department of School Psychology, and the Department of Research, Measurement, and Statistics. Among Dr. Saenz’s publications are the best-selling The Power of a Teacher, Relationships That Work, and his most recent release, The EQ Intervention: Shaping a Self-Aware Generation Through Social and Emotional Learning.
Cristina Sanchez-Lopez collaborates with educators in the U.S. and Canada on developing culturally and linguistically responsive multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS), mathematics, literacy across the content areas, multilingual education, engaging parents, special education, and supporting Pre-K educators. Ms. Sanchez-Lopez has taught at the elementary, middle school and university levels in the U.S. and Mexico and currently teaches graduate courses in the areas of Biliteracy, Assessment, and Foundations of Language Minority Education. Ms. Sanchez-Lopez is co-author of “Special Education Considerations for English Language Learners: Delivering a Continuum of Services” (2013), and a recent publication in the Oxford University Press Focus Series, “Focus on Special Educational Needs” (2018). Cristina and her husband have raised their daughter bilingually.
Christin Sankey is the mother of four children, three of whom attend REACH Charter Cyber School and receive special education services. Her fourth child, Olivia, is a REACH graduate and current Freshman at the University of Scranton. The 2020-2021 school year is their 7th year as a cyber family. In addition to being a Learning Coach, Christin is also a Community Coordinator for REACH for Lackawanna and Luzerne counties.  In this role she gets to offer social and educational events for students. Before becoming a Learning Coach, Christin worked as an Electronic Data Interchange Business Analyst and graduated from Luzerne County Community College. 

Mark R. Shinn, Ph.D. is currently Professor and Coordinator of School Psychology at National Louis University (NLU) in Chicago, IL. Prior to joining NLU, he was Professor of School Psychology and Special Education at the University of Oregon (1984-2003). Dr. Shinn is a nationally recognized consultant to schools and state departments of education across the country concerning implementation of MTSS /RTI. In the past two years, he has supported state department MTSS/RTI efforts in Virginia, North Dakota, Iowa, and North Carolina, and in 2015, he worked with the Tennessee Department of Education to develop and roll out their state’s Secondary RTI2 model. In 2016, Dr. Shinn was appointed to the Mayor of Chicago’s ADA 25 Task Force to Improve Literacy Outcomes for Students with Disabilities. Dr. Shinn’s areas of specific expertise include work with scientifically based basic skills progress monitoring and screening, particularly when applied to Multi-Tier System of Supports (MTSS) or Response to Intervention (RtI). He has published more than 100 book chapters, refereed journal articles on progress monitoring and screening, and edited five books on research-based practices.
Jane Swan is the CEO of Reach Cyber Charter School. As school leader, Mrs. Swan leads all areas of academics as well as a team of administrators. She previously served as a director and high school principal for nearly eight years at a cyber school, and an English teacher and department chair in a bricks-and-mortar school for eight years. In addition, Mrs. Swan has worked as a coordinator for Parent Networks, advocate for people with disabilities, and coordinator of AmeriCorps and physician education programs at Temple University’s Institute on Disabilities. With a proven track record in student success, leadership, and communication skills, Mrs. Swan brings a wealth of knowledge and integrity to Reach Cyber Charter School. Most importantly, she always puts students and families first.

Carol Tolman, Ed.D. is a national and international presenter with over 25 years of experience in the public school system, with 13 of those years spent designing and implementing an innovative reading clinic and academic support collaborative for academically challenged high school students. Awarded a doctorate in educational psychology, Dr. Tolman went on to spearhead many successful, long-term literacy initiatives both nationally and internationally. Within higher education, Dr. Tolman organized and delivered curriculum for the Massachusetts Licensure Program and conducted a four-year project for the Maryland Department of Education supporting literacy knowledge for professors. She is the author of Perspectives articles, “Working smarter, not harder: What teachers of reading need to know and be able to teach,” and “The relationship between teacher knowledge and effective RTI: When we know better, we do better.” As a co-author of LETRS Module 1 (2nd ed.), LETRS Module 10 (2nd ed.), and all LETRS Presenter’s Kits, Dr. Tolman presided over the LETRS Leadership Board, co-authored, with Louisa Moats, the LETRS (3rd ed.) texts and online professional development courses, presents LETRS Training of Trainer (TOT) workshops and Facilitator Trainings, and supports literacy initiatives throughout Australia. Most importantly, Carol enjoys learning first-hand how language develops through the eyes of her granddaughter, Ava!
Nicole Tucker-Smith, founder and CEO of Lessoncast, helps schools implement professional learning initiatives focused on inclusive leadership and teaching and equity best practice. She leads the Jumpstart PD Network, a community of educators who access flexible PD options to engage in high-quality professional learning opportunities that fit their need, schedule, and budget. She has served as a teacher, supervisor of parent support services, principal, and systemwide coordinator of professional development and training for Baltimore County Public Schools and as a faculty member for Johns Hopkins University School of Education. Ms. Tucker-Smith is an international presenter on Universal Design for Learning, a member of the CAST National Faculty, and she provides her professional development expertise to support implementation of UDL in P12 and higher education learning environments.
Inés L Vega has been working for the Pennsylvania Migrant Education Program for the past 22 years. She began her journey with Migrant Ed as a teacher’s aide for the 1998 Summer Camp program and was then hired to be one the MEP Student Support Specialists and Regional Parent Coordinators. In 2006, upon the completion of her Master’s Degree in Human Services at Lincoln University, she was promoted to Team Leader of Migrant Student Services for Millersville University. In 2008, she became the MEP Statewide Parent Involvement and Special Projects Coordinator for the PA Migrant Education Program. Ms. Vega has served and an educator, parent, and student advocate; developed academic extended learning opportunities for migrant children; and, currently oversees all programming logistics related to MEP Summer STEM Leadership Institutes and Statewide Parent Involvement/Parent Engagement initiatives.
She strongly believes in educating our families of the “unknowns.” She invites us to take time to establish trustful and on-going relationships with all stakeholders, learn about the communities we live in and work for, establish partnerships; and identify the language and cultural ambassadors among those communities. 

Ronald W. Whitaker, II, Ed.D. is the Culturally Responsive Pedagogy Assistant Professor of Education at Cabrini University. At Cabrini, he also serves as the Assistant Dean in the School of Education, Director of District and School Relations, and Director for the Center for Urban Education, Equity, and Improvement (CUEEI). Further, Dr. Whitaker also holds the distinction of being a Schouver Fellow at Duquesne University. Whitaker completed his doctoral degree in Educational Leadership at Duquesne University. He also earned a master’s degree in Education at the University of Pennsylvania, a master’s degree in Business Administration at Eastern University, and two undergraduate degrees from Geneva College. Additionally, Dr. Whitaker earned a Certificate in Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and a Certificate in Diversity and Inclusion from Cornell University. As a researcher, Dr. Whitaker has published articles on the psychology of race and racism, issues related to diversity, equity, inclusion, culturally responsive pedagogy, practices, and programming, and the societal and educational disenfranchisement of African American males. 
Marilyn Zecher is a teacher and Nationally Certified Academic Language Therapist specializing in the application of O-G Multisensory Strategies for teaching Math, Study Skills, Reading & Language, Spanish, and Content Area Subjects. Ms. Zecher is a former classroom and demonstration teacher in an Orton-Gillingham based public school program. She holds a BA in education and a BA and MA in English. In 2004, Ms. Zecher received her certification as an Academic Therapist specializing in multisensory mathematics and study skills. She helped to develop ASDEC’s Multisensory Mathematics program that apply Orton-Gillingham instructional techniques to the teaching on mathematics. Ms. Zecher is a presenter at IDA, LDA, and the National Teachers of Mathematics national and regional conferences. She has trained both public and private school teachers as well as academic therapists in multisensory mathematics instructional techniques, handwriting, multisensory study skills, and educational strategies for the gifted and talented dyslexic student.
Perry A. Zirkel, Ph.D., J.D. is university professor emeritus of education and law at Lehigh University, where he was formerly Dean of the College of Education. He has a Ph.D. in Educational Administration, a J.D. from the University of Connecticut, and a Master of Laws degree from Yale University. He has done presentations in every state in the U.S. and has also written more than 1,550 publications on various aspects of school law, with an emphasis on legal issues in special education. In 2012, he received the Research into Practice Award from the American Educational Research Association (AERA) and the Excellence in Research Award from AERA’s Division A (Administration, Organization & Leadership). In 2013, he received the University Council for Educational Administration’s Edwin Bridges Award for significant contributions to the preparation and development of school leaders. In 2016, he received the Education Law Association’s Steven S. Goldberg Award for Distinguished Scholarship in Education Law, and in 2017 he received the Council for Exceptional Children’s Special Education Research Award. He continues to direct the one-day Lehigh Special Education Law Conference each May and the one-week Lehigh Special Education Law Symposium each June.