By Jo Mathis/AAPS District News Editor
Bianka VonKulajta works with families at the Westerman Preschool and Family Center. As a member of the assessment team, she evaluates children ages newborn through 5 for special education supports. Often families are just hearing about special education for the first time when they connect with the assessment team, and VonKulajta a works to make sure families know how important their role is in their child’s education and who they can go to with ongoing questions. She loves spending time meeting with parents, learning about their families, explaining special education, and identifying local resources.
VonKulajt’s belief in sharing information and experiences goes beyond her work in the AAPS. She has supervised interns from the schools of social work at the University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan University, mentored fellow social workers in the AAPS, and presented at workshops throughout the state on topics ranging from expressive therapeutic techniques to using technology in social work practice. VonKulajta is also an intermittent lecturer at the University of Michigan School of Social Work, where she teaches classes to future social workers on therapeutic work with individuals, small groups, and families. She is passionate about experiential learning and incorporates her knowledge and love of hands-on techniques (play therapy, adventure therapy, etc.) in her teaching.
VonKulajta’s parents immigrated to the United States from Germany and the former Yugoslavia. Her mother was a nurse and her father an engineer who both highly valued education. Bianka is the youngest of three children. She attended Dexter Community Schools through seventh grade and Greenhills School in Ann Arbor through high school. VonKulajta received her bachelor’s degree from Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, NY and her master’s degree from the University of Michigan School of Social Work.
VonKulajta and her wife live in Ann Arbor and spend much of their time renovating their historic home. They have two rescue dogs that keep them on their toes. VonKulajta volunteers at the University of Michigan Women’s Hospital where you can find her once a week making coffee and greeting visitors in the Birth Center.
You support families with their first special education eligibility. Is this a tough time for them—and you? When a parent first learns that their child is struggling in the educational environment with a skill related to learning, it can cause concern. It can also serve as an opportunity for parents to discuss with the team their child’s unique learning profile and share information about their child. I am a big believer that information can provide reassurance and opportunity. Our goal, as an assessment team, is to make sure families feel empowered when they transition from our team to their child’s IEP team. We want to make sure that families feel supported and know that the information they have shared about their child during the assessment will be used by the child’s teaching team to help their child be successful.
Principal Michelle Pogliano says you offer families emotional support with empathy and compassion while never losing sight of the whole child and the whole family. How do you do this? My role as the social worker on the evaluation team is to hear the concerns of the families and to better understand their child’s experiences. Though a school evaluation focuses on skills that impact the classroom, our students have often not been in school before and this is their first experience with being with a group of other children. Sometimes it is the first time that they have been away from family. This can be an anxious time for the children and their parents. We work as a team to reduce stress and focus on the amazing things that happen for children in early childhood education.
What inspired you to become a social worker? I have always been inspired by how resilient people can be. After college, I worked with children in a residential program where my career path became solidified. I decided that I wanted to be an advocate for children who often did not have a voice to advocate for themselves. After my master’s program, I continued to work in residential care, before becoming a family therapist for community mental health, and finally finding my way to the public school system.
If you hadn’t gone into social work, what might you have done? I often joke that I need 15 lifetimes to do all that I would like to experience in this world. I’d love to be a painter, a librarian, a professor, a Zingerman’s cheese maker, a toy designer, a truck driver, a writer….the list goes on and on. Thank goodness I live in Ann Arbor where there are many opportunities to meet people who have these skills and are willing to share their experiences with me, whether through formal classes or over a cup of coffee at Sweetwaters.
What’s the best compliment anyone could give you? The best compliment is hearing parents tell me that they feel like their concerns have been heard and that the evaluation report accurately reflects their experiences with their child. Primary education covers many years. If a family can start out feeling empowered and knowledgeable about this complicated process, I know that our team has done a good job.
In your six years in AAPS, what’s the most important thing you’ve learned? I have learned many things in the six years I have worked in the AAPS. One of the most important things that I have learned is that the people with whom I work have really amazing skills and by working collaboratively, my skills are enhanced through the expertise and experience shared by my colleagues.
Describe an average workday. My day often consists of coffee, interviews, observations, assessments, and play. Preschoolers communicate a lot through play. It is their natural language. We use play-based techniques to identify children’s skill levels in communication, social skills, reciprocity, cognition, fine motor, sensory regulation, and behavior. It is really fun to leave a meeting and be passed in the hallway by a child pulling a friend around in a wagon. Sometimes there are groups of children pretending they are on a safari, traveling the hallways looking for images of animals that have been hidden throughout the school. These experiences help remind us all why we do the work we do.
What’s the happiest part of your day? I love sitting on my couch each morning with my dogs, drinking coffee, and reviewing my schedule for the day. It is a peaceful way to jump into the workday.
Favorite websites: Pinterest. I am mildly obsessed and seem to have created Pinterest boards for almost everything.
Apps you can’t live without: Snow Day Calculator because my child-self still loves the anticipation of a snow day! I enjoy my job but the idea of a snow day can bring joy regardless of age.
What is the most rewarding part of your job? Listening to parents about their concerns for their children and being able to reassure them that their child will get the school supports they need.
How do you recharge? Finding balance between home and work is a lifelong journey. I am a big believer in the need for self-care to help find that balance. Walking my dogs, learning new recipes, spending time with family and friends, and dreaming of house renovations are all things that help me recharge.
What’s most exciting about your professional life right now? Your personal life? Professionally, besides teaching others and learning from my peers, I love looking at visual data: pie graphs, line graphs, etc. to consider trends. My coworkers sometimes chuckle at how much I enjoy working with data. I think it is important to routinely look at the big picture and frequently considering the data helps us do that. Personally, I am working on setting aside time for new experiences and adventures. At the top of the list is committing to a yoga class.