Jeff Conrad learned nearly 30 years ago that when one door closes, another one opens.
After 10 years as an Army Ranger and helicopter pilot, an eye exam revealed glaucoma. In that era, a glaucoma diagnosis rendered pilots unable to fly.
So, the Caesar Rodney High grad returned to an earlier calling.
“I’ve always had an affinity for working with special-needs students,” said Conrad.
As a ninth-grader, Conrad began volunteering at the John S. Charlton School, Kent County’s equivalent of the Sussex Consortium, swimming with students and helping them prepare for Special Olympics.
In college, Conrad majored in special education and psychology on a military scholarship. As an Army officer, he volunteered as a Big Brother and job coach for kids.
Following his Army career, Conrad has spent 27 years in education, serving in administrative roles at elementary and high school levels. In 2000, he joined Cape; 12 years ago, he was named supervisor of special education.
Conrad oversees special education and special programs, speech pathology, occupational therapy, physical therapy and school psychology services provided to students.
“My desire is to see all kids reach their potential,” Conrad said. “It’s near and dear to my heart. I have found they are so appreciative of the time you spend with them. That’s reward for most of us, but the bigger reward is watching them achieve things people thought they couldn’t.”
In recognition of his dedication, Conrad was named Delaware’s special education coordinator of the year at the 17th annual Policy and Practice Institute: Delaware’s Conference on Public Education June 26.
“It was a surprise personally but very reflective of my co-workers. It is truly a team effort,” said Conrad, who said Delaware’s special education coordinators work cooperatively to create programs that best serve students.
Conrad said he can’t wait for the new Sussex Consortium to open.
“The kids will have all kinds of opportunities to try leisure activities, such as the school movie theater, in a smaller, more controlled setting,” Conrad said. “By working at the school’s businesses, they can start out small and may end up working at larger retail stores.”
Conrad lives in Milton with wife Michaela, a 1982 Cape High grad. They have three children, all Cape grads, and one grandchild. Looking back, Conrad says his high school volunteer activities were a catalyst for his career in special education.
“Early exposure to kids with special needs made me realize I was blessed with opportunities,” he said. “I wanted to see that for all kids, and that’s what special education is all about - providing a free and appropriate public school education to all kids in the least restrictive environment.”
Cape Superintendent Bob Fulton said the district is very fortunate and proud to have Conrad as part of the team.
“I couldn’t think of a person more deserving of this award,” Fulton said. “He is extremely dedicated to his work and does so with professionalism and empathy. Jeff is able to understand the needs of each and every student, and is able to convey this caring attitude to everyone that he interacts with, especially parents and students.”