The leader of the Exceptional Child Education Cooperative in Houston is about to pass the baton.
After six years as director of the non-profit organization, Eileen Fronterhouse will retire at the end of June. Her replacement, Lillian Collins, is already waiting in the wings, having been at the Co-op for six years and spending the last three as Fronterhouse’s right-hand woman.
Created in 1977, the Exceptional Child Education Cooperative serves 13 area school districts and is designed to allow those districts to each have access to a complete staff of special education specialists. The idea is that by pooling their resources, even small districts have the opportunity to benefit from the skills of trained specialists whose services would otherwise be likely out of reach financially.
Co-op staff includes 24 individuals with qualifications covering many aspects of special education, including early childhood, speech therapy, deaf education, and others.
“We have people here with degrees in all kinds of areas,” Fronterhouse said. “On their own, these school districts would not be able to afford to hire people like we have, but getting together makes it so they can afford the best kinds of services.
“I have always believed that every child deserves the best that’s available, and that shouldn’t change just because they were born in a small town that has a small school.”
Of the co-op’s 24 employees, only a few might be in the office at any one moment. Their work weeks are in large part spent in the field dealing with children of member school districts.
“We go into a lot of homes,” Fronterhouse said, “and we go to Head Starts, daycare centers, school district pre-schools, and of course the schools.”
Fronterhouse is a lifelong Texas County resident who ran a beauty shop in Houston for a few years after graduating from high school. She then went to college and obtained a degree in elementary education from Southwest Missouri State.
While working for Plato Schools, Fronterhouse became aware of the Co-op since the district was a member. She said she fell in love with what the organization represented.
“I thought it would be a grand place to work, so I applied,” she said. “I loved the idea of being able to stand up for the rights of kids in so many districts.”
She got on and worked at the co-op for nine years as an educational resource teacher before earning her masters in educational administration and taking a director’s position with the Willow Springs district.
Five years later, the co-op’s director position came open and Fronterhouse got a call. She returned to fill the need.
“It made sense for someone who knew the Co-op system to take over,” Fronterhouse said. “It would be hard for a director of one school system to come in and have to juggle 13 districts and try to know how it all worked, but it was a pretty easy transition for me.
“I knew most of the people who worked here and the first thing I told them when I came back was ‘the good news is I know how this place works; the bad news is, I know how this place works.'”
Fronterhouse recalls her days working under superintendent Dr. Don Hamby at Willow Springs as one of the most influential times in her life. She was particularly affected by the “seven guiding principles” that were reviewed at the beginning of every school board meeting overseen by Hamby – “be respectful, be responsible, be cooperative, be compassionate, be flexible, be trustworthy, be mission driven.”
“That was probably the best thing that ever happened to me as far as being a leader,” Fronterhouse said. “I go by those things all the time now and that’s what I’ve built my whole approach around. I have great respect for the people who work at the Co-op, and if you have people you can’t trust you need to get someone else. For the children’s sake, you have to have people who have all these traits.”
The items on the list are the main motivators in the way Fronterhouse has dealt with adults she has come into contact with through the Co-op.
“You have to have respect for every parent you ever have any kind of communication with,” she said. “I don’t care what their background is. There are just different kinds of people in the world and you have to have compassion for them. Our job is not to look down on them, but to get their children the services they need.
“I’ve always felt that if you treat every little child like they were going to someday be the president of the United States, they would all be treated pretty well. You have to look at the potential every kid has; it’s not for us to say what or who a child is going to be.”
Using the list format, Fronterhouse has created a document she presents to each new employee that outlines her likes, dislikes and expectations. It’s topped by “I like to laugh.”
“I decided a long time ago that I wasn’t going to work in a place where you couldn’t have fun every day,” she said. “But I like using it because then people don’t have to wonder what I’ll think of something they might do or say at some point – because I’ve already told them.”
Fun activities are a Fronterhouse priority and monthly staff meetings usually include something of that nature. A favorite is the “bubble wrap dance.”
“Sometimes at those meetings, some of us haven’t seen each other in days or weeks,” Fronterhouse said, “So I like to get everyone together so we’ll remember we’re a team, and I like to do something fun. A lot of times we’ll celebrate the new year with the bubble wrap. I collect it from furniture stores; we have music and do the dance.”
In fact, Fronterhouse would rather have an employee stay away than threaten to turn peoples’ smiles upside down.
“I always tell them – and I’m serious about it – if you get up in the morning and have a bad attitude or are feeling cranky, just take a sick day,” she said.
In its early days, the Co-op operated out of portable buildings behind Houston High School. A modest space in downtown Houston was later acquired, but things changed for the better in a big way 2 ½ years ago when the Houston Development Company finished refurbishing the old Lee building, having prepared much of it specifically for use by the Co-op.
Since then, Co-op workers have enjoyed larger, modern office spaces, children have had more hands-on possibilities available, and the whole operation has taken a step forward.
“It has made such a positive difference for us,” Fronterhouse said. “I can’t thank them enough for doing this for us.”
The Co-op evaluates about 500 children per year. Good connections that Fronterhouse, Collins and others in the organization maintain with cohorts at the state level make handling 13 districts and such a large load of children easier.
“It’s not a problem for us to call and get answers we need right away,” Fronterhouse said. “And a lot of us are familiar with school law; coordinators at some of the districts are also teachers and they don’t have time to concentrate on school law or what new policy is coming down. But since they can check with us, they don’t need to.”
Collins is a graduate of Summersville High School who was an elementary counselor at Summersville prior to coming to the Co-op. She holds masters degrees in elementary education, guidance and counseling, and educational administration.
Collins’ roles at the Co-op include being the process coordinator and a psychological examiner. As process coordinator, she is in charge of making sure the 13 member districts are in compliance with federal and state laws concerning procedures for special education for students aged 3-21 (a task that at times can be complicated and involve very specific guidelines and procedures).
She trains each district’s special education coordinators, new teachers and paraprofessionals, and also keeps them updated with changes in procedures as they occur. As a psychological examiner, Collins evaluates students ages 3-21 in the districts as needed.
She said her experience at the Co-op has been fulfilling on many levels and she looks forward to leading the organization.
“It has been a great professional opportunity for me to grow and expand my knowledge base,” Collins said. “Becoming director will be a challenge, and I love challenges. It’s very exciting to have a challenge and see it all the way through to the end and have a successful outcome. I love that. Plus I’ll be able to continue helping people and making sure kids get the services they need, but not so many that it actually handicaps them later on in life.”
Collins said she enjoyed and benefited from working under Fronterhouse.
“I sent an email to all of the superintendents and told them that she has been the world’s greatest mentor,” she said. “She has provided me with all the guidance I’ve needed, but not too much.”
The 13 districts relying on the Co-op’s services have no need to expect much difference with Collins as director.
“We run well,” she said. “Everybody does what they’re supposed to do and we have an excellent staff who all have initiative and drive and work independently.
“Eileen has everything set up to run perfectly; it would be a huge mistake for me to come in and make a bunch of major changes.”
Fronterhouse thinks Collins is ideally suited to be her successor.
“It will be an easy transition for her like it was for me,” Fronterhouse said. “We have a lot of complicated things in place here, but she knows how it all works.”
Fronterhouse and her husband of 40 years, Ted (a retired MoDOT worker), have purchased a home near Branson and plan to move there to be closer to relatives. The outgoing Co-op director figures she’ll find a way to stay busy.
“I can’t see myself not doing anything, so I’ll probably look into teaching some college classes or maybe supervising some student teachers,” she said. “Or maybe I’ll write a book; I was telling someone the other day that I would like to write a book, but I’d have to wait until everyone I know dies before it could come out.”
One of the lasting impressions Fronterhouse will take with her when she leaves the Co-op is the satisfaction of believing she helped positively affect the lives of many people.
“We serve such a large area,” she said, “and I felt like it was really important that the small schools received quality services. We see little kids who start out not being able to say a single word and they’re speaking in sentences in a few months. We see deaf children who people sometimes don’t even know are deaf. They start out wild, but after spending a few months with the right people, they’re able to go to class with other kids.
“But probably the most important moments happened when I would go into a meeting with parents who were without any kind of hope for a child, but came away knowing I had helped give them hope.”
Fronterhouse believes she’s one the cusp of another significant chapter in her life.
“I really believe God has led me from one thing to another,” she said, “and I believe He’s leading us to Branson. We’ve never moved – we’ve lived in the same house for 40 years. I really think God has plans for me there. I just don’t know what they are yet.”
I’ve always felt that if you treat every little child like theywere going to someday be the president of the United States, theywould all be treated pretty well.”