Thirty-three years ago, North End native Elizabeth Dello Russo first came to the Landmark School in Beverly as an 8-year-old struggling unhappily in school, still unable to read because of her dyslexia that had only finally been diagnosed.
On Monday, Feb. 25, she returned to the Prides Crossing school serving students with dyslexia and other language-based learning disabilities to celebrate the success of a lifetime: Her appointment as the new executive director for Massachusetts’ statewide association of schools serving students with special needs, the Massachusetts Association of 766 Approved Private Schools (maaps).
An attorney who has held senior positions with Massport and at Boston City Hall, Elizabeth Dello Russo Becker credits three summers of learning to read at Landmark, supported by ongoing Landmark tutoring through high school, with shaping the course of her life and career.
“Going to Landmark enabled me to be the person I am today,” Becker said as she met with teachers and students at Landmark. “Landmark was the place I learned to read–and it was the place that gave me self-confidence.”
She took over as executive director of maaps on March 1, succeeding the 30-year tenure of James V. Major. The association represents Landmark and 79 other schools that serve students with special needs, ranging from dyslexia and other language-based learning differences to developmental and physical disabilities.
More than 80 percent of the 6,800 students served by maaps member schools — and about 50 percent at Landmark — are public school district students whose learning needs conventional public schools have been unable to meet.
From Landmark, Becker went on to Concord Academy, Mount Holyoke College, and Suffolk Law School. At Suffolk, she studied disability law extensively.
“That was a field I always expected to get into, to give back to people who’d experienced some of the same struggles I had. But I discovered I had a real love for government and community relations, and that became the path I followed,” Becker said.
After serving as a senior attorney for the City of Boston in the administrations of Thomas M. Menino and Martin J. Walsh, including serving as the city’s “casino czar” negotiating with gaming developers, Becker went on to serve as director of community relations and government affairs for the Massachusetts Port Authority, which runs Logan International Airport.
During her visit to Landmark, she met with eight of the school’s “Student Advocates,” 12th graders who represent Landmark’s services and explain dyslexia and other language-based learning disabilities to parents, community leaders, legislators, and future classroom teachers studying at local colleges.
The new maaps executive director and the students shared many stories of their challenges of working through dyslexia and learning to read and succeed academically. They also discussed some of the ways they have actually found it to be a positive: Learning to think and solve problems creatively, the self-discipline and high personal standards that come from needing several more hours a day to complete homework than students without learning disabilities.
“Maaps helps the schools that help students like you,” Becker said. “So, indirectly I am going to be helping you, too. My professional life has followed kind of an untraditional arc, but now I’ve gotten back to what I always wanted to do.”