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Leah Voorhies has always loved taking things apart and putting them back together again. Growing up, she wasn’t sure how that would apply to her life’s work because she didn’t know what she wanted to be or what she wanted to do. When she entered BYU, she charged forward pursuing subjects that interested her, taking courses that built upon each other, observing the interaction between various subjects, and working with people she wanted to help. Perhaps her approach to education led her to see things in different ways. In the process, this approach prepared her to fill a special niche in education today.
Voorhies will be the first to say that the goal was a long time coming and involved a lot of degrees. But because of her choices along the way, she was prepared to contribute in exceptional ways in positions that seemed to be waiting for her.
Today Voorhies serves as the Utah State Board of Education assistant superintendent of student support and director of the State Systemic Improvement Plan (SSIP). She is responsible for nine teams that oversee all supplemental programs for the state board. They cover areas such as child nutrition, compliance of special education programs, school counseling, federal programs, and adult education, to name a few. She directs the work to achieve the goals of the board. “It’s not enough to do good work,” Voorhies said. “You want to do the right work and do it better.”
Meeting the challenges of the SSIP has been rewarding for Voorhies. Utah is part of a National Center for Systemic Improvement learning collaborative, a group consisting of 15 states that are working with the U.S. Department of Education to look at systems alignment of programs serving those with disabilities. With Voorhies’ excellent knowledge and skill set, Utah has become a leader in this initiative and in the aligning of program delivery—the aim being to improve outcomes for the individual child.
For seven years prior, Voorhies worked in the special education division of the Utah State Board of Education. Under her leadership she led the SSIP efforts that increased math scores for students with disabilities. This and other efforts resulted in providing exceptional services for these Utah students.
Receiving the Achievement Award
Voorhies was selected as the 2018 McKay School of Education Alumni Achievement Award honoree and presented a lecture to the school during Homecoming Week. The title of her lecture was “Convergence: The Antidote for Initiative Overload.” She spoke about improving services to those with disabilities by improving the program structure and delivery.
As public school districts or charter schools receive new grants or funding, they are responsible for creating a plan to develop and evaluate the new outcome measures. The person overseeing the new plan often has no interaction with or even knowledge of those overseeing other plans in the same school. As Voorhies stated, “This lack of convergence is decreasing the efficiency of the system, the effectiveness of the initiatives, and the morale of the staff.” Voorhies presented an example of a state-level approach that is working toward convergence and the impact it is having on student outcomes.
Voorhies is the oldest of eight children. During her childhood there was a family in her stake that had four boys who were deaf. Classes in sign language were offered to anyone who wanted to learn to sign, especially those who interacted with the boys. Voorhies took the classes and gained a limited knowledge of signing.
As Voorhies registered at BYU, she decided to build upon her background in signing and enrolled in sign language classes. Then she took it a step further by living in the Sign Language House at BYU and becoming immersed in signing.
With her great desire to help people, Voorhies selected sociology as a major and studied special education along with school and counseling psychology. During this time she found a love for public education, of which she said, “There is no other equalizer more powerful than education.”
She earned her first BYU degree in sociology in 1995. Through her classes, experiences, and growing interests, she decided to concentrate on those with special needs. This decision led her to enter a master’s program in the Department of Counseling Psychology and Special Education in the McKay School. She earned her master’s in school psychology in 1997. As part of her school psychology experience, she completed an internship at the Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind.
Combining Psychology and Administration
Armed with the knowledge of different disciplines and engaged in real-world experiences, Voorhies arrived at the conclusion that psychology and administration were a great mix. She found that she could contribute best by analyzing research and data and using that information to reorganize programs serving those with disabilities to improve their productivity, effectiveness, and compliance.
Things change with time. Of her efforts, she stated, “Organizations need updates every five to ten years to keep them relevant and effective.” She discovered that she was good at cleaning up organizations, and she enjoyed doing it.
Voorhies didn’t think that psychology would be her life’s work, but because of her growing interests in counseling psychology, she went on to earn a PhD in that field at the McKay School in 2007.
Ellie Young, a counseling psychology professor—her mentor and one who Voorhies says grounded and challenged her—said, “Leah has been and continues to be a tireless advocate for youth, especially youth with disabilities. She has contributed to building and leading educational systems that meet the needs of youth.”
When the Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind had a vacancy, they asked Voorhies to return and work with them. In addition to her work as a school psychologist, she was the coordinator of School Mental Health Services and director of Related Services. In the process of updating and reorganizing the program, she fell into a world of special education compliance that she understood and could organize and respond to.
Although she wasn’t engaged in the traditional work of counseling psychology, she recognized what a great foundation she had. However, she also realized that she wanted a better understanding of education administration. True to her nature, she enrolled at Utah State University for a postdoctorate in education administration, earning her administrative/supervisory credential in 2010.
It was during her employment at the Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind that she interacted with personnel from the Utah State Board of Education. Her work was noted, and she was recruited.
Advocating for All Children
During these very busy years, Voorhies has also been involved with volunteer and humanitarian work with children and youth in her family, in her church, and around the world. Her knowledge and skills have blessed lives not only in Utah as she worked with the Advisory Committee to the Utah Division of Child and Family Services but also as she worked internationally. In Kenya she provided teacher training and materials to professionals there. In Guyana she worked with LDS Charities to build an education program for students who are deaf and blind.
While serving as Primary president in her ward, she created a personal relationship with all the children, including several who were on the autism spectrum and had difficulty connecting with others.
Since completing her doctoral work, she has been able to share her expertise on psychological issues with family, friends, and colleagues. She can intervene in a crisis, diagnose complex learning and psychological issues, and collaborate with medical professionals.
Voorhies serves children by ensuring that parents and educators understand and apply the rights and protections of the Procedural Safeguards of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act that has been set up for all students and families.
Serving in Other Areas
Throughout her career, Voorhies has held various leadership positions in the Utah Association for School Psychologists. She has also served on several national committees as a delegate to the National Association of School Psychologists.
Elected to the Jordan School District Board, she served for more than four years during the stormy days of the Jordan/Canyons split. For seven years she taught education and psychology courses at Salt Lake Community College.
Among her honors and awards are the Utah Council for Exceptional Children Special Education Administrator of the Year Award and the Utah Association of School Psychologist Service to the Association Award.
Voorhies is a woman of many talents. As a young girl she danced with Ballet West for two years. She makes jewelry when she has time, and she travels extensively. She served a mission in Sweden, attended the BYU Jerusalem Center, has visited six continents so far, and speaks four languages. Traveling to the University of Turku in Finland, she observed and studied their educator preparation strategies to ascertain if some could be incorporated into Utah’s strategies.
Voorhies is the favorite aunt of her 27 nieces and nephews. “I have made it my adult life’s mission to have a personal relationship with each,” she said. “They are the light of my world, and I believe I am a pretty bright light in each of theirs.” She takes her nieces and nephews on special trips and has arranged cruises that have taken the Voorhies family all over the world. These activities have earned her the title of family activities and cruise director. The home that she shares with her parents is a gathering place for the extended family for weekly Sunday dinners and for visits and meals with close friends. Neighbors call the home the Voorhies Homeless Shelter because everyone is welcome.
Voorhies has found her calling and continues to successfully take things apart and put them back together. Her career preparation has taken her in directions she could not anticipate. She points out that teaching and administration are just two education options available to those with psychology and special education degrees. Counseling psychologist, special education teacher, related service provider, instructional support provider, and curriculum and assessment developer are other areas that contribute to a successful system.
And she is surprised at the many times she has been able to use her sign language.
The greatest gift that Voorhies feels she received from her many and varied experiences at BYU is “the networking with like-minded people who care about education and the less fortunate.”
From the kindness she has received and given, her advice for life is “Kindness is the mother of peace.”
For more on Voorhies’ Alumni Achievement Award address, visit education.byu.edu/alumni-awards-2018.
Written by Shauna Valentine
Photography by Bradley Slade