Soon after starting summer work as a teacher’s aid in a Headstart class while still in high school, Rachel Allemand realized what she wanted to do with her life.It all came together for Allemand when she saw the difference educators can make in a student’s life.
“I decided that was the path for me,” said the Hahnville resident and Killona native.
By 1974, Allemand earned her bachelor’s degree with a major in special education and minor in elementary education. She went on to get a master’s degree in educational administration at the University of New Orleans in 1982.
“It just flew by,” she said of her time in education. “I had the opportunity to work with some wonderful people.”
One of them was Superintendent Felecia Gomez-Walker who described Allemand as a selfless leader who served the students, school system and community for 42 years.
“I am a better person for having worked alongside Rachel Allemand,” Gomez-Walker said. “As a product of the St. Charles Parish Public School System, her desire was to give back to a learning organization that she believed gave her so much. And give back she did.”
Allemand well understood the school district as someone who spent most of her life in it as a student, teacher or administrator.
“I’m their chief advocate,” she said of parish schools.
Her career began as a special education teacher.
It was the 1970s and there were a handful of classes and few services for children with disabilities at the time. She was named the child search coordinator with the responsibility of finding children not enrolled and bringing them into the school system.
“Many parents kept their disabled children at home,” Allemand said. “At the time, there was no law to require that the system even offer classes to them. By the 1970s, there came laws that required that all children be served by the system.”
By the mid-1970s, the parish had one school that served children with intellectual disabilities – the special education center in Boutte. But she recalled how it served a small number of them.
“They would just come and register their children,” Allemand said. “People didn’t know anything different at the time.”
When R.J. Vial Elementary School opened it offered classes for special education students, which came with a surprising development.
Parents started withdrawing their children from the Boutte center and registering them at R.J. Vial Elementary. So many of them did this that there was concern expressed over there being enough space for all the incoming students.
Allemand knows this because she was among the first special education teachers at the school.
“I can only assume they wanted their children to be with non-disabled peers,” she said. “The class grew tremendously when at least two special education classes were available there.”
She welcomed the change, which she considered a major breakthrough with the concept of inclusion or mainstreaming that became a national standard.
“St. Charles Parish was in step with that thinking,” Allemand said. “It did allow children to attend their neighborhood schools regardless of their instructional needs.”
To Allemand’s thinking, inclusion was working, particularly when she observed how disabled children were learning from students with more advanced skills.
“We grow from being around others who can challenge us and show us the bigger picture,” she said. “Being with children with higher levels gave the children with disabilities something more to strive for.”
Allemand saw firsthand what inclusion did for these students in significant ways.
“They were better from my perspective,” she said. “The children looked happy there. They blended in with the student body. Other children just accepted them.”
Allemand watched the number of special education classes grow in schools and now there are more than 100 special education teachers in the system.
There’s also more awareness for disabilities and more efforts to meet the individual needs of these students, as well as provide a curriculum that meets their particular needs.
“Overall, I think there’s more acceptance of children with disabilities,” she said. “There’s nothing that fills me more with pride than when the student crosses the stage to get a diploma and the student body applauds them with a standing ovation.”
This is far different from the time when people didn’t know how to react to children with disabilities, but Allemand said the experience had changed her, too.
“That has really influenced the way I look at things in that children are different and their needs are different,” she said. “When I went into administration that included special education along with general education, and it gave me a foundation and insights that guided my position.”
From 2008 until her retirement this year, Allemand was able to apply what she learned as assistant superintendent of curriculum, instruction and assessment in the parish school system. Because of her background in meeting the needs of all students, she recognized the importance of getting a multimillion dollar “Striving Readers” grant that brought interventionists to five schools to help children struggling in reading and writing.
After 42 years as an educator, Allemand singled out her role in developing K – 12 curriculum for all students as one of her proudest accomplishments.
“What drove me in my career is that I always felt I got a great education in St. Charles Parish schools and I just wanted to pay that back,” she said. “I wanted to be sure the benefits received could be transferred to others who live in the parish. I’ve been devoted to St. Charles Parish schools for many reasons, but I wanted to pay that back.”