Life has a way of taking us full circle.
For Glenna Wright-Gallo, that journey began with a moment in middle school. A neighbor in UNLV’s special education program brought her to campus to help out at the UNLV/CSUN Preschool one summer. At other times growing up, she would tag along with her mother Brenda Wright (a first-generation Rebel who attended after serving in the U.S. Air Force), ‘88 BS Accounting, to explore campus and attend events.
So when it came time for college, UNLV was a natural choice for Wright-Gallo.
And now, Wright-Gallo is returning again as the keynote speaker for the College of Education’s 9th Annual Summit on Nevada Education Nov. 4.
Wright-Gallo, ’97 BS Education, is assistant secretary for the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS). She serves as advisor to the U.S. secretary of education on issues related to the education of children with disabilities, as well as employment and community living for youth and adults with disabilities.
“I came to UNLV knowing I wanted to be a teacher,” says Wright-Gallo, though she hadn’t yet decided on a specific role or discipline. “So, it was through my undergrad program and courses and talking to different people that I was able to identify what I wanted to do.”
That was a career in special education.
“After graduating, I started working immediately as a special education teacher in a middle school setting,” says Gallo-Wright. “And then I was really looking for opportunities to have more engagement and build more in-depth relationships with the students I was working with.”
So, she transitioned from a resource classroom providing consultative services to a more self-contained setting. At that point she noticed the significant challenges that educators and students with behavioral disorders and disabilities encountered.
“I was frustrated by watching the same barriers occur in the schools where I was working without it being addressed,” Wright-Gallo explains.
Some of those barriers, she says, included the need to proactively address behavior with positive supports, decrease reliance on exclusionary disciplinary measures and removal from instruction and classrooms, and designing school schedules to support inclusionary practices.
And, as a person who is both solution-driven and learning-focused, she went on to earn her master’s in special education to tackle those very obstacles.
Wright-Gallo served as the assistant superintendent of special education in the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction in Washington and as state director of special education for the Utah State Board of Education. She learned to collaborate with students, their families, and partners in education, and she implemented a monitoring system to improve outcomes for students at the state level.
“Any time an opportunity came up, even if I wasn’t actively seeking to make a change, I really did explore if that was the right move for me and something I should consider.”
But it didn't take much consideration when she was offered the opportunity to work for the U.S. Department of Education.
On May 10, 2023, Wright-Gallo was confirmed for her role as OSERS assistant secretary after spending more than 25 years supporting students and adults with disabilities.
Her advice to graduating students who also want to implement change?
“I think that many of us have ideas of the change we want to see,” she says. “My advice would be to identify methods that will lead to success for implementing changes. We voice frustration day after day but we aren’t going to move ahead unless we take sustainable action.”
Taking action is exactly what the 9th Annual Summit on Nevada Education hopes to achieve. The summit will gather education and community leaders, researchers, and educators to celebrate what’s working well in Nevada’s education community and discuss how they can build on those successes to improve academic and mental health outcomes.
As the keynote speaker for the College of Education, Wright-Gallo will address those same barriers that she observed from the start of her career as a special education teacher. But now with 25 years of experience, she returns to UNLV with sustainable solutions that will lead to “more effective collaboration and more positive and meaningful outcomes for our communities.”
UNLV Faculty Provided Mentorship, Opportunities for Wright-Gallo
Who influenced the influential? Glenna Wright-Gallo points to two faculty members for their influence on her eventual career:
- College of Education professor emerita Kyle Higgins, says Wright-Gallo, taught her about special education and person-first language. Person-first language emphasizes the person before the disability, for example “person who is blind” or “people with spinal cord injuries.” Her research included evaluation of software for students with disabilities. Higgins retired in spring 2023.
- The late professor emeritus Bill Wagonseller spearheaded the creation of a UNLV family wellness center in the 1980s and supervised Wright-Gallo during her first internship working with students with behavioral disorders. Through this internship Wright-Gallo found her career path. Wagonseller became a leader in the field of parenting and published nationally recognized books and videos including, You and Your Child and the Practical Parenting series.