Southfield special education director recognized with award

By: Mark Vest | Southfield Sun | Published December 19, 2020

 Southfield Public Schools Special Education Director Lanissa Laura Freeman was recognized with an award.

Southfield Public Schools Special Education Director Lanissa Laura Freeman was recognized with an award.

Photo provided by Anika Corbett

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SOUTHFIELD — This past summer, Southfield Public Schools Special Education Director Lanissa Laura Freeman took out her pen and paper after getting a call from a representative from Oakland Schools.

The call was regarding the upcoming Gwisdalla Award, which was created in honor of the late Gregory Gwisdalla, who was the director of special education at Oakland Schools from 1997 to 2001.

The pen and paper came out because it is an event Freeman typically helps plan.

However, Oakland Schools had a different role in mind for her this year.

“They shared with me, ‘No, Lanissa. This year you’re the recipient,’” Freeman said. “Kind (of) took my breath away for a moment because I’ve been working with the team for years, trying to make sure people have a wonderful experience, and never imagined that one day it would be me.”

In September, Freeman was part of a Zoom virtual celebration.

She said this is year No. 24 for her in the special education field.

Freeman was previously a special and general education teacher, and has been in her current role with Southfield Public Schools since 2017.

She said she was “blown away” by the award.

“I think we do this work out of sheer love, but it was very humbling, because you’re nominated by your peers, and then it’s voted on by your peers,” Freeman said. “So, to be recognized by my peers, it was very humbling.”

The man who the award was named for did not escape Freeman’s attention. She said Gwisdalla was a “giant in this field.”

“This award was established to honor educators in the field of special education to continue his legacy of hard work and making sure students with disabilities had every opportunity, as their peers, to succeed,” Freeman said. “That’s why the significance of the award is so touching, because of who Greg Gwisdalla was. I did not have the opportunity to meet him, but only knew of his work.”

Freeman recalled being motivated to go into special education due to having a cousin with significant cognitive impairment.

She said her cousin attended a specialized school.

“As a young girl, I didn’t understand that,” Freeman said. “I didn’t understand why we couldn’t play together, have family vacations together, family reunions together, and we could not attend the same school. I think having that experience at a young age opened my eyes to, ‘Wow, there’s something not right about that, and what can we do to make that right. How can we open up doors so students with disabilities have the same opportunities as children that are in general education?’”

SPS Intense Student Support Network Coordinator Stephanie Palmer described Freeman as “one of a kind.”

“Her focus is singular — doing what’s in the best interest of children,” Palmer shared via email. “Dr. Freeman leads by example. She has set up classrooms, subbed in classrooms, cleaned, made copies, made phone calls, distributed materials, etc. … We are teammates, and she is our captain.”

Freeman has a Bachelor of Science degree in cognitive impairments, a master’s in educational leadership, an Educational Specialist Certificate, and a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction, all from Wayne State University, according to Oakland Schools. She participated in the Yale University School Development Program in 2000 and was a member of the Harvard National Institute for Urban School Leaders in 2010, according to Oakland Schools.

Freeman said working in special education, “every day is a celebration of growth.”

“I am so excited,” she said. “I still love what I do. … I work shoulder to shoulder with not only my staff, I work shoulder to shoulder with the other directors in Oakland County as we re-write teaching and learning for students with disabilities.”

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