Ginny Maiwald, the Menlo Park City School District's director of student services, has an impressive resume. But one of her most important qualifications is not her education or her work experience -- it's her life as a single mother, who raised two deaf children to be thriving young adults.
In March, the school district announced that Ms. Maiwald had been named the regional Special Education Administrator of the Year by the Association of California School Administrators. She was later named the organization's state award-winner. The nomination came from the team she supervises.
"You've earned the respect of every member of your team," Superintendent Maurice Ghysels said at the school board meeting where the regional award was announced. Ms. Maiwald, he said, brings "a sense of spirit" to the district that makes inclusion, the term for including special needs students in regular classrooms, "to a whole new level."
Accepting the accolades, Ms. Maiwald said: "I speak three languages and none of them seem to work right now." She praised her team and the psychologists who work at every district school.
"The work we do is hard. We have the hardest cases," she said. "We get through it with laughter and fun," she said.
As she spoke, Ms. Maiwald's fingers were flying, using sign language to express what she was saying. It soon became clear why. Her 27-year-old deaf daughter, Meghan, was in the audience. "She's my inspiration," she said. "I wouldn't do the work I do with all of you if it wasn't for her."
She told about how her daughter, while still quite young, decided she wanted to play soccer. Ms. Maiwald was reluctant, she said, thinking Meghan would better spend her time working with speech and language specialists. But, she said: "I let her go. I let her use her super powers."
Super is not much of an exaggeration. Meghan, a goalie, went on to play club, high school, college, professional and even international level soccer. She was on the U.S. teams that won the Deaf World Cup in 2012 in Ankara, Turkey, and the gold medal in the 2013 Deaflympics in Sofia, Bulgaria.
Meghan is now coaching soccer while she finishes a degree in physical education and recreation at Gallaudet University, founded in 1864 to teach those who are deaf or hard of hearing.
Ms. Maiwald's 23-year-old son, Sean, has his own super powers, she said. After graduating from Leigh High School in San Jose, where he played football, he attended Gallaudet University, majoring in government. He is now at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., working on his master's degree in public policy. He said he wants to work to support access for individuals with disabilities throughout the U.S. and the world.
"This is what we do, this is why I love you all," Ms. Maiwald said of her children. "This is what happens when we find their super powers."
Meghan Maiwald was 3, going on 4, when she told her pregnant mother just exactly what she wanted for her birthday.
She wanted a brother, Ms. Maiwald said, but also had more requirements. "She wanted him born for her birthday, and she wanted him born with hearing aids," Ms. Maiwald said.
Ms. Maiwald knew she would be disappointing her daughter. She had to explain to Meghan, who was born deaf, that she couldn't guarantee any of her desires, especially the hearing aids that no one comes into the world equipped with.
And then, she said, three weeks before her due date, the unexpected happened. "The morning of her birthday party ... I went into labor, and a baby boy was born hours before her birthday party, deaf."
Ms. Maiwald said she was starting to "feel sorry for myself" thinking of what was ahead for her as the mother of two deaf children. Then she gave Meghan the news. "I said the baby is a boy, and the baby is going to have hearing aids." Her daughter lit up. "She was delighted," she said.
Sean Maiwald became his older sister's confidant and companion, and even now, as young adults, the two share an apartment in Washington, D.C.
"It all worked out," Ms. Maiwald said.
Ms. Maiwald said she was working as a bilingual Spanish/English teacher when Meagan was born in 1990, before screening of infants for their hearing became routine. For more than a year, Ms. Maiwald said, she did not realize that Meghan couldn't hear.
Meghan said "mama" at 18 months, and seemed to hear her mother come into her room, Ms. Maiwald said.
But then, one day Meghan climbed up onto a counter, grabbed a cookie jar and threw it to the floor. She wanted a cookie, but had no way to say so. "I finally realized this child needs language," Ms. Maiwald said.
"I had these feelings of sort of being an inept parent."
Later, Ms. Mailwald said, she realized it was the vibrations caused by her footfalls on their hardwood floors that had alerted her daughter to her presence. "She'd already learned to compensate at such a young age," she said. She also realized that she, too, had been compensating for Meghan's lack of hearing.
As a teacher, she began to research raising deaf children. She found books written for deaf parents of deaf children, but not many for hearing parents of deaf children.
"I knew she had a culture of her own" as a deaf child, she said of Meghan, but she found the literature confusing. Some authors recommended teaching sign language; others, verbal language and lip-reading. "I knew as a bilingual teacher, it's never one or the other," she said.
"I realized, I was a teacher and this was a bilingual issue," she said. "A person can learn two languages at a time very successfully," she said, allowing simultaneous acquisition of sign and verbal language.
She ended up writing a book for other parents, entitled "Keys to Raising a Deaf Child." One of its main tenants is: "Accept the deafness, even enjoy it," she said. She wrote the book in 1999, and now, she said, "it's time for my two deaf young adults to write the sequel."
Ms. Maiwald said her children taught her as well as inspired her. Before entering kindergarten, her children attended special classes for the deaf offered by the Santa Clara County Office of Education. By kindergarten, interpreters helped them be included in mainstream classrooms.
One day, she said, her daughter brought her a painting she had done in class. "They let me in," Meghan told her proudly. Ms. Maiwald realized that while general education students "just get to show up" to their classes, children like hers "have to have permission to show up, and have to meet goals to stay there."
Ms. Maiwald said she feels fortunate to have the "special perspective of seeing (the education system) though my kids' eyes."
"My children got the services they needed," she said. "If children don't get services, their intellect can actually become stifled. The right services for the right kids is essential."
Ms. Maiwald was working on a master's degree in special education when she began to focus on American Sign Language (ASL). "I wanted fluid communication in my home," she said.
She was, after all, outnumbered. "We even have a deaf cat," she said. While Ms. Maiwald is fluent in ASL, at times "signing occurred behind my back."
"I was more of an outsider," she said.
Dealing with special needs children, she said, is hard. "We become overwhelmed with all that needs to be done."
"Love your child first, other things will fall into place," she advises.
In her four years in the Menlo Park City School District, Ms. Maiwald said she has made many changes in the way special services are provided. She has traded outside contractors for employees and added counselor and psychologist time to every school.
She has used technology to help autistic students add the structure they crave to their schedules, with work stations showing them visually what their day entails.
"We use unique curriculum and we use different types of technology," she said.
Many of the changes, Ms. Maiwald said, have saved the district money, and some other districts are now paying the district to educate their special needs students.
"You want a child to be independent, not dependent," she said.