Bill Hussey

State Director of Exceptional Children Services

By Kurt Dusterberg
Photo By Davies Photography

Bill Hussey is in the business of believing in children. He is the state director of Exceptional Children Services at the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. The job title is a long one, but the mission is easy to explain: he and his staff help guide North Carolina’s programs for students with disabilities.

Hussey worked in similar roles with Durham Public Schools and the Alamance-Burlington School System before taking his current position four years ago.

“This is a fun job,” says Hussey, who is 64 years old. “I’m having a good time here. I’ve got a smart division. They’re interested in doing some new things to work through some of our old problems.”

Midtown Magazine: How did you come about your interest in working with exceptional children?
Bill Hussey: It started back in college. I was a Big Brother for a child who had a disability and I got engaged with that program. My undergraduate degree was in biology, but it put me in touch with some people in the special education department at Appalachian State, where I was going to school. My father was a doctor, my mother was a nurse. Just from the beginning, we did a lot of things in our family that had to do with helping other people. That had a real influence on me. That gave me a base to work from.

MM: There was a time when special needs children did not always have their needs met. Where do things stand today with making sure they get the specific attention they deserve?
BH: Prior to 1975, there wasn’t really a focused view on how to work with children in schools. Many children were at home for the most part or in the community in some type of center. From that time forward, we started bringing kids into schools, and the laws have evolved to the point in North Carolina where there are over 200,000 [exceptional children] from three-year-olds up to age 22. They go from learning disabled kids who are able to be primarily in classrooms, to children who are very involved medically as well as cognitively. The system covers all the children across that spectrum.

MM: Can you describe the scope of the program across Wake County?

BH: The special ed population across Wake County is approximately 20,000-plus kids. Our statement here is, all special ed children are regular education children first. We try to push that as a way of thinking about these children, because they should get everything everybody else gets. Special ed is supplemental support to access the curriculum and content.

MM: For people who don’t have exposure to these programs, what are some of the issues affecting
these children?
BH: These kids are regular education kids first. They go to the regular schools for the most part. Well over 80 percent are sitting in the seat next to a child that is not special education or exceptional. They are just kids who happen to have a learning disability or emotional disability. They could have had a brain injury or be sick in some way. They’re just kids. They have a particular learning or social-emotional issue that creates a need for supplemental help and support. That’s what we provide.

MM: These children do overcome educational obstacles. Can you shed some light on that?
BH: The majority of these kids are cognitively fine. A good number of them do go on to college. It’s more difficult, but they move through. And they can be just as successful. They just sort of disappear into the crowd like anyone else; it just takes them a little bit longer. We have a lot of children who come through and are successful, and they no longer need supplemental support.

MM: How important is it to have a level of interaction from their peer group in the general education population?
BH: Socialization is huge, that they’re not removed from their peers. They need the contextual things that are necessary for a normal kid to grow up – all the interaction and what happens in a social environment. The other part of [being in a general education setting] is that they get the content taught to them by content teachers. Special education teachers are not content teachers. We help support supplemental strategies designed to support the content.
 
MM: I know that Project Unify involves students from the regular education group who work specifically with special needs students. What role does that play in helping your mission?
BH: In Project Unify, we’re talking about students who are potentially more cognitively impaired. It’s crucial for them to get a sense of normalcy, not to be isolated, not to be excluded from extracurricular activities. They need to feel like a regular high school kid or middle school kid. That growth and maturity – in both the social-emotional context as well as the academic-educational context – is tremendous. When those programs get going, the service part that happens for the children who are not the special education kids is fairly phenomenal. The sense of doing something with an outcome as positive as that is dramatic. It plays out on both sides of the coin.

MM: You have the kind of job where you might be profoundly affected by how different people’s needs can be. That’s got to leave a mark on you as a person.
BH: I started off working with children with severe emotional difficulties until I became a director. It is incredible the individual differences and the ability [we have] to make change. I’ve worked with children as young as six who had to be removed from their families. It’s significant, the change that can be made and the trust that can be developed. It does have a profound effect. There are a lot of people who, especially when you have kids with social-emotional and behavioral issues, feel like kids can be lost causes. Over my lifetime, I’ve seen the ones who were considered to be the worst cases. An amazing number of those children were able to do something positive and had less severe outcomes as a result: they didn’t go to jail, they didn’t end up in a hospital. They were able to function. That’s the thing that pushes me most. There’s not a kid out there that can’t be helped.

MM: Tell me a bit about your life and family.
BH: I grew up in eastern North Carolina in a little town called Tarboro. I’ve traveled a lot, but I’ve stayed in North Carolina. I met my wife when I was in school at Appalachian. We moved to Durham about 35 years ago and we’ve lived there the whole time. My wife Trish is the director of Freedom House Recovery Center, a mental health facility. Our daughter Cali is 38 and Ben is 32.

MM: What do you like to do for fun?
BH: I laughingly say I turn to the east when I need my rest and meditation. We go to Ocracoke Island. We were married on Ocracoke. We go there at least twice every year. We truly enjoy just hanging out there, clamming and fishing. We have two grandchildren now, one who is five and one who is about six months. We enjoy the grandparent duties. Otherwise, we have really close friends we enjoy hanging out with and we travel when we can.

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