Project UNIFY National Education Leaders Network

To advance Special Olympics Project UNIFY® as a broad-based education program and opportunity for all students to be successful, Special Olympics formed the Project UNIFY National Education Leaders Network (NELN). This network of distinguished education leaders assists Special Olympics to inform policymakers, education leaders, practitioners, and community partners, about Project UNIFY principles, practices, and impacts.

Members of the Special Olympics Project UNIFY National Leadership Network provide insights to Special Olympics Project UNIFY staff and constituents about education-related opportunities and issues and help Special Olympics navigate the current education reform landscape. This notable group advances the important work of creating safe, inclusive, effective, and engaging school environments where all students succeed.
Specifically, members of the National Education Leaders Network contribute to Project UNIFY goals by:

  • providing advice, sharing insights, and offering assistance on selected projects;
  • informing their constituents of Project UNIFY philosophy, programs and impacts;
  • participating in quarterly conference calls and meeting with Project UNIFY leaders and staff twice a year;
  • participating in the Project UNIFY Youth and Education related workshops, meetings, seminars, and conferences as appropriate;
  • contributing to Project UNIFY resources; and,
  • identifying opportunities to collaborate to advance social inclusion and youth leadership in schools throughout the United States. 

Betty Edwards

Betty is the Chair of the Special Olympics Project UNIFY® National Education Leaders Network. She is specialized in the fields of middle grades education, school improvement, classroom assessment, and the relationship between dropout prevention and middle grades education. Betty recently held the position of Executive Director of the Association for Middle Level Education, formally the National Middle School Association (NMSA), which is the nation’s largest professional association focusing on the education of young adolescents. She has served as the Vice-President for testing and professional development for Measured Progress, which is “a non-profit provider of customized assessment and professional development on various areas of assessment.” Prior to her work with Measured Progress, Edwards was the Associate Director of the National Study of School Evaluation, the research and development arm of the regional, education accreditation commissions. She has also served as a middle grades teacher, school and district administrator, and Kentucky Department of Education’s “director of curriculum and assessment development during Kentucky's historic education reform initiative in the 1990s.” She served twice as a chair of the Alliance for Curriculum Reform and has served as the president of the National Middle School Association and the Kentucky Middle School Association. Edwards has served on various advisory boards, including America’s Promise, The League, and the National Youth Leadership Council. She holds a Master’s Degree and Doctorate from the University of Louisville.

Joanne Cashman

Joanne is part of the IDEA Partnership and is the Director of the National Association of State Directors of Special Education. Cashman has served as the project director of The Interdisciplinary Doctoral Training Program at The George Washington University. She has served as both the building principal and supervisor of special education for the Shikellamy school district in Sunbury, Pennsylvania. She has worked towards improving disability education and awareness at the local and state level for twenty-seven years and is continuing to work with the Pennsylvania Bureau of Special Education and the Pennsylvania Interagency team. Cashman is a frequent presenter for state and national audiences and has authored articles, practice manuals and book chapters. Her research interests include: shared policy agendas and cross-cutting policy strategies; service learning; self-determination and self-advocacy for individuals with disabilities; organizational learning; knowledge management; and communities of practice. Cashman received her doctorate in special education from The George Washington University.

James Comer

James is currently the Maurice Faulk Professor of Child Psychiatry at the Yale University School of Medicine’s Child Study Center. He has devoted his career to “creating a focus of child development as a way of improving education systems.” In 1968, he founded the well-known Comer School Development Program, which advocates for the involvement of parents, educators, and communities simultaneously to increase the visibility of social, emotional, and academic outcomes for children. Apart from this, Comer is an established author, publishing nine books in total. Some of his works include Beyond Black and White (1972), Black Child Care (co-authored with Dr. Alvin F. Poussaint) (1975), Raising Black Children (1992), and School Power: Implications of an Intervention Project (1980).

Comer chaired the Round Table on Child and Adolescent Development Research and Teacher Education, organized by National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education and The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). He was a co-chairman of the national expert panel of the NCATE - Initiative on Increasing the Application of Developmental Sciences Knowledge in Educator Preparation. He has served on the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development's Commission on the Whole Child. Since 1971, Comer has served as a trustee on numerous boards. He has been awarded 47 honorary degrees. 

Arnie Fege

Arnie is Director of Public Engagement and Advocacy for the Public Education Network (PEN), and is a co-author of the PEN Guide on NCLB Parental and Community Involvement. He has been working in the fields of public education and child advocacy for over 30 years. He has served as a public school teacher, principal, assistant superintendent, and desegregation director. He has also served as a staff person for Senator Robert F. Kennedy, where he helped draft provisions in the original The Elementary and Secondary Education Act legislation. Fege was present when President Lyndon Johnson signed the measure into law in March 1965 and has been involved in each reauthorization of ESEA. Fege receive numerous awards, some of which include the 1983 Roosevelt Center Congressional Child Advocacy Award, the 1998 National PTA President’s Recognition for Outstanding Child Advocacy, and the 2000 Nelson Mandela Award for International Education Leadership and Social Justice. 

Charles C. Haynes

Charles is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center and director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum in Washington, DC. He is best known for his work on First Amendment issues in public education. For more than twenty years, Haynes has served as principal organizer and drafter of consensus guidelines on religious liberty in schools, endorsed by a broad coalition of religious and educational organizations. Haynes has authored or co-authored six books, including Finding Common Ground (2007) and First Freedoms: A Documentary History of First Amendment Rights in America (2006). His column, “Inside the First Amendment”, appears in newspapers nationwide. He is currently Chairman of the Character Education Partnership Board of Directors, serves on the Steering Committee of the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools and chairs the Committee on Religious Liberty for the National Council of Churches. Haynes is often quoted in major newspapers and appears frequently on television and radio. In 2008, he received the Virginia First Freedom Award from the Council for America's First Freedom. Haynes holds a master’s degree from Harvard Divinity School and a doctorate from Emory University. 

Bruce Hunter

Bruce serves as the Associate Executive Director for Advocacy, Policy, and Communications at the American Association of School Administrators and directs the association’s legislative efforts in Congress and the U.S. Department of Education. He began his career in education as a middle school Social Studies and English teacher in Shoshoni, Wyoming. He also worked as a trainer of head start teachers in western Texas, taught Sociology at Eastern New Mexico University and was a policy analyst and grant administrator for the Education Commission of the U.S. in Denver. Hunter received his Bachelor of Arts from the University of Northern Colorado, a Master of Arts from the University of Texas El Paso and did graduate work in education administration at the University of Colorado. 

Molly McCloskey

Molly is the Managing Director of the ASCD Whole Child Initiative. She directs many of the Whole Child Programs, including ASCD’s Healthy School Communities Program. She previously served as the project director of the First Amendment Schools Program, as well as the executive director of Community Youth Development for the YMCA of Greater Cleveland. She began her career in education as a 5th grade teacher in Washington, DC and has been involved in every level of education from prekindergarten to graduate school. Molly has also served as a school counselor and Comer School Development program facilitator in Prince George’s county. She was an adjunct professor for Western Maryland College (currently known as McDaniel College) where she taught group dynamics and human growth and development to graduate students in the School of Education. McCloskey has spoken, been interviewed, and written about school reform, whole child education, and First Amendment issues. She has been featured in the Miami Herald, USA Today, Edutopia, and the Chicago Tribune. In addition, she is the coauthor of the ASCD Infobrief on The Whole Child: A Framework for Education in the 21st Century in Fall 2005 and the 2007 reissue. Currently, McCloskey serves on advisory boards for the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools and the Coalition of Community Schools and on the steering committee of the United Voices for Education. She also volunteers for the Prince George’s County Public School Corner Steering Committee. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology from the Catholic University of America and a Master’s of Education in school counseling from the University of Maryland, College Park. 

Ted McConnell

Ted is the Executive Director of the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools (CMS), a coalition of over 70 national organizations dedicated to strengthening civic learning in our nation’s schools. He previously served as the director of the Campaign to Promote Civic Education, which is a nationwide effort to refurbish and strengthen civic education at the school district and state levels. Ted was Co-Coordinator of the Congressional Conferences on civic education from 2003 to 2006. He has been involved in the political, governmental and nonprofit sectors for over thirty five years and has worked in the management of over thirty political campaigns around the country. McConnell also serves on advisory boards for Citizenship Counts, MacNeil/ Lehrer Productions “The.News,” Rock the Vote, and the Walter and Leonore Annenberg Presidential Learning Center at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. He attended the University of Nebraska where he majored in Political Science and Business Administration. 

David Osher

David is Vice President at the American Institutes for Research. David is an international expert on school climate, social emotional learning, and student support. David is Principal Investigator (PI) of the evaluation of many research and evaluation projects. David also serves as PI of The National Center for Mental Health Promotion and Violence Prevention, The Technical Assistance Partnership for Child and Family Mental Health; The National Evaluation and Technical Assistance Center for the Education of Children and Youth who are Neglected, Delinquent, or At Risk; and the National Center for Safe and Supportive Schools. David, who was PI of the Global Evaluation of Child Friendly Schools and of the What Works Clearing House Review of Character Education, is PI of a contract to help the Federal Agency Interagency Working Group on Youth Programs to improve youth programs across 12 Federal Departments and Executive Agencies and to develop a National Plan for Youth. David, who was Academic Dean of a Liberal Arts college and two professional schools of Human Services, received all of his degrees from Columbia University. He has authored or co-authored over 300 books, monographs, chapters, articles, and reports. 

Kathy Payne

Kathy is the senior director of Education Leadership for State Farm. She is in charge of State Farm's business-education partnerships and works directly with State Farm Chairman and CEO Edward B. Rust Jr. in the area of business/education partnerships focused on improving student achievement. She is also responsible for the direction of State Farm's philanthropic support for education organizations. She is a former school board member and president. She received the 2002-2003 Illinois Board of Education "Those Who Excel" Award for outstanding contributions to education, and was named the "2003 Woman of Distinction" for education for her home county in Illinois. She was also a 12-year veteran teacher in the area of Special Education at the secondary level. She serves as a director for Youth Service America, the National Youth Leadership Council and the Institute for a Competitive Workforce at the U.S. Chamber. 

Jeff Sherrill

Jeff is the Associate Director of the National Association of Student Councils through the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP). Sherrill has devoted over twenty-five years to the field of middle school education and has worked to improve and promote the importance of student leadership in middle and high school students, as well as their advisers. His duties as Associate Director involve addressing student council policy and procedure questions, along with other leadership-related topics posed by advisers, and striving to expand the effectiveness of student councils in their schools. He also serves as an overseer of the Raising Student Voice & Participation (RSVP) initiative, which advocates for the promotion of student voice and service, and works as staff liaison for the NASSP National Committee on Student Contests and Activities. In this position, Sherrill addresses NASSP members’ questions and concerns on student contests and programs that are not school sponsored. His prior positions include teaching at Newton-Conover Middle School in Newton, NC, serving as Executive Director for the Western District of the North Carolina Association of Student Councils (NCASC) and being a member of the NCASC state board and workshop staffs. 

Brenda Welburn

Brenda is one of the founding members of the National Education Leaders Network and has recently retired from her position as Chief Executive Officer at the National Association of State Boards Of Education (NASBE). She is currently working as an education consultant. In her 30 years of experience, she has focused on policy development, analysis in education and human service issues. Additionally her responsibilities as CEO at NABSE included onsite training to state boards in the areas of boardmanship, strategic planning, goal setting, and searches for chief state school officers. Welburn was the Deputy Executive Director and previously the director of governmental affairs for the same organization. She began her career in social work in Philadelphia, specializing in direct services to foster children and their natural and foster families. She later became a research analyst with the U.S. House of Representatives Select Committee on Assassinations. She went on to become a legislative Assistant to the late Senator Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts, covering a broad range of legislative issues, including education, health and human services, child welfare services and civil rights. Welburn is the author of The American Tapestry: Educating a Nation, a guide to infusing multiculturalism in education. She has written many articles and made numerous public appearances addressing issues that affect the nation’s students, speaking on education issues including cultural diversity and its impact on education, the need for safe and supporting environments for all students, lay leadership in education governance and school reform. She has served on several boards, task forces and commissions responsible for improving the health and welfare of children. Welburn is a Howard University graduate with graduate work at University of Pennsylvania. 

Cheryl Williams

Cheryl is the executive director of Learning First Alliance (LFA), a coalition of 16 national education organizations. She is recognized as a leader in education reform and improvement with extensive experience leading nonprofit boards and building successful board/staff relationships. Prior to coming to LFA, she served as Vice President of Strategic Initiatives at Teachscape and Education Vice President at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). For fourteen years, she directed the Education Technology Program at the National School Boards Association (NSBA). Williams is a past president of the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), a former board chair for the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), and current board member of the National Coalition for Technology in Education and Training (NCTET) She began her career in education as an English Language Arts teacher in Montgomery County, MD, and earned her BA and MA in English and Secondary Education from the University of Maryland, College Park. 

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