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Canfield optimistic on Exceptional Education’s future

Patrick Canfield’s life reached a full circle when he joined Erie 1 BOCES this fall, because little did he know, that photo of Patrick Canfieldhe’d become director of Exceptional Education, where his whole career really started.

“I was originally interested in art [in high school]. I saw myself getting into an advertisement gig and becoming some rich graphic artist in New York City when I wasn’t really as talented as I thought I was,” said Canfield, laughing as he reminisced. 

Despite that passion for art, which is still a hobby of his, his life went in a very different direction when he was looking for something to do in his free time at high school.

“I had the great fortune of graduating from Kenmore East High School and Erie 1 BOCES had two functional special education classes there, one of which is still there to this day,” he said. “Instead of study hall, I’d volunteer in that room as something to do and they were really fun kids to be around, so I got bit by the special ed bug.”

Canfield was so enthralled when volunteering in a BOCES classroom, that he couldn’t stay away as he progressed through his high school education.

“I found more opportunities to volunteer in that room and by my senior year I was there every minute that I could be. I even went on their class camping trip. The teachers at Erie 1, who have since retired, were hugely inspirational to me and that’s what changed the course of my whole life in a lot of aspects.”

Becoming a special education teacher was a given at that point, which led Canfield to the Cantalician Center, a nonprofit educational, rehabilitative and occupational facility, after he attended college. After years of being a teacher, another big change came to his life.

“I was very fortunate early on in my teaching career to have a principal that recognized my leadership qualities and I naturally sort of became a teacher-leader among my colleagues. Those attributes were fostered by the administrators I worked for and I was encouraged by them to explore administration. I never thought I’d be in a role like this,” he said.

“I always thought I’d be a classroom teacher with kids with special needs, he added. “I loved it and still do. In the big picture, I’ve always wanted to make a big difference and kids with exceptionalities are my passion.”

Canfield took on coursework at Buffalo State to receive his administrative degree and soon became a principal of school-age programs at the Cantalician Center. He later moved to the public-school system to take a director of special programs position at Niagara-Wheatfield Central School District.

After 30 years of working in education, Canfield is now ready to pull from his diverse experiences to affect education on a more regional scale. He says he’s excited about what’s already happening in the organization and that it’s at a great point to keep building from.

“We have some very exciting and diverse programs going on here. I think there’s been a great vision ahead of my arrival of what some of the needs are out there and trying to be responsive to them. We also have some good collaborations going on even within divisions in BOCES with Career and Technical Education and Workforce Development,” he noted.

“There’s a desire for innovation and growth going forward here. It’s talked about all the time. What are the needs that we’re not meeting yet? How can we get there? What do we have to do? The forward thinking is tremendous. We’re already talking a year or two out on certain ideas and what we need to address with programming. I find it very exciting.”

Although he believes Exceptional Education is in a good spot, he says that more work can be done to make sure that the field’s biggest challenges are minimized and that every student can succeed in their educational pursuits.

“This isn’t unique to BOCES, but there is a changing population in the types of students and the needs that they have that we’re receiving from our districts. Kids today across the board have so many challenges. They’re exposed to so much that is troubling and the way they think and operate is different than it was five or 10 years ago. One of our challenges is to keep adjusting to that,” he said.

“The prevalence of children with mental health and emotional regulation issues as well as emotional attachment disorders is staggering. It’s a significant challenge, but the most exciting opportunity because there’s a tremendous need for that kind of support in Western New York. We’re looking at that, to expand our programs to meet the need and do it well,” he added.

Two of those programs he points to are the EDGE Academy and RISE. EDGE Academy opened its doors this fall to innovate the approach to alternative education by giving students opportunity to explore a variety of subjects to specialize in. RISE also started this fall with a small group of students to help address students’ behavioral, social, and mental health needs by consulting with psychiatric and behavioral specialists.

By instituting and expanding crucial programming like that, Canfield says that the future looks bright for so many more students in the Western New York area.

“We’re here to educate kids, but so many can’t get there because of all these other issues they’re wrestling with. We’re trying to tear down those obstacles for them and also connect them with the resources that are out there in the community for them as well. If we can do that, these kids stand a chance, and that’s what we’re shooting for.”

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