MOUNT VERNON -- For some couples, working together adds stress to their marriages.
Not so for Joe and Lisa Mazzari.
Joe is director of Knox Learning Center in Mount Vernon, which serves approximately 60 special-needs students from kindergarten through age 22. Many have behavioral issues, some are profoundly disabled.
Lisa is the center’s parent mentor, a role in which she works to assure that parents know their rights and the services available to their children.
“We do take our work home with us every night,” Lisa said. “That sounds negative, but it isn’t. We are a source of strength for each other.”
Knox Learning Center is located in Mount Vernon’s former West Elementary School. It is operated by the Knox Educational Service Center.
The Mazzaris have deep roots in community service. Joe, who is the mayor of Danville, had a long career in law enforcement and juvenile probation before taking a behavior modification role at Knox Learning Center in 2016. He became director this year.
Lisa is executive director of Knox County’s Food for the Hungry program.
“We have a great, dedicated professional staff of teachers and aides,” Joe said. “Many of our students’ behaviors are not appropriate for a traditional school environment. We have to connect with those kids and work with them to change their actions.”
Knox Learning Center draws students from all Knox County districts -- Centerburg, Danville, East Knox, Fredericktown and Mount Vernon -- plus Clear Fork Valley, Cardington- Lincoln, Highland, Mount Gilead and North Fork (Utica) ... The average length of a student’s enrollment at the center is 18 months.
“It’s a totally different one-to-one environment here,” Joe said. “The goal is to return students to their home districts whenever possible when issues have been resolved. We try to be involved with the student, parents and the home school when that decision is made.
“When we talk to our partner schools, we’re on the same team. We want what’s best for the child. We have a conversation, share information. It is important that everyone understands the level of trauma which caused the child’s behavior issues.”
For students with profound disabilities, classrooms are structured with teachers and one-to-one aides who provide specialized age-level learning instruction.
Lisa, who joined Knox Learning Center in 2019, sees her role as “an opportunity to build better, stronger families.”
“I don’t want any school district to see me as adversarial,” Lisa emphasized. “I just want a parent’s voice to be a strong one. I want all parents to understand the services available to their special-needs children. Joe and I want the same thing: To support kids and their families.”
Lisa’s passion for helping parents stems in large part from the experience she and Joe had when their son was in fourth grade. His teacher characterized him as “lazy,” when in fact he had a learning disability. At the time, they didn’t know he could be tested and given help, so they worked on their own to help him.
Their son, now 30, went on to graduate from Mount Vernon High School and the Knox County Career Center. He has a family and successful career..
As a law enforcement and juvenile probation officer, Joe interacted with schools, Children Services and the Knox County Board of Developmental Disabilities.
“Our family has paid a price for the passion we have for serving the community,” Joe said, recalling times that he was called away to deal with a juvenile probation issue.
“And he might come back with another child,” Lisa added, smiling.
Joe and Lisa believe their children forged strong character traits by what they witnessed as children.
“Our daughter and son are who they are today because of what they’ve seen us do,”Joe said. “Not the result of pain or guilt or pressure; they just knew we did what needed to be done.”
Lisa agreed, noting their strong family support system among in-laws and others.
“Our daughter,31, is an intervention specialist at Clear Fork Valley Local Schools and she’s working on her master’s degree,” Lisa said. “Her career is a direct result of her dad’s work and what she saw her brother go through.”
So while the new school year is already a month underway, Joe must also tend to his mayoral duties in Danville and Lisa leads the Food for the Hungry campaign.
“Free time? Good luck with that,” Lisa said, laughing. “We haven’t always been able to schedule a vacation or family events. But it has always been worth it.