After receiving 43 applications and interviewing seven candidates, a committee comprising teachers, parents and administrators has hired Michael Saidens to be the Locust Valley Central School District’s new executive director of special education.
Saidens, 47, has amassed a variety of educational experience over the last 23 years, and most recently was the executive director for special education services in the Sachem School District, one of the largest on Long Island. His extensive record of success made him the perfect candidate for the position in Locust Valley, Board of Education President Brian Nolan said.
“We always look for highly qualified individuals,” Nolan said. “In searching for the successful candidate, we look for the best, and Mr. Saidens has a proven track record in excellence and high performance.”
Saidens is a lifelong Long Islander, having grown up in Port Jefferson Station and now living in Smithtown with his wife, Jennifer, and their 10-year-old son, Jake. He graduated from Comsewogue High School in 1991 before studying business management at Clemson University in South Carolina. Clemson was a great fit for him, he said, because he is a huge fan of its football program, having crossed the country to watch the Tigers compete in the National Championship in 2015, 2016 and 2018.
Saidens graduated from Clemson in 1996 ready to enter the business world. But his work as a camp counselor every summer, he said, changed his career path. He said he got up every day excited to work with children, and soon realized that he wanted to make a career out of it. He worked with children with special needs, and he said that helping them integrate into normal groups was especially rewarding.
“I just wanted to work with kids,” he said. “I wanted to be a positive role model for children and help them be the best that they can be. When you have an opportunity to help a struggling child find themselves and help them become independent, I don’t think there is a greater reward.”
After completing a master’s in special education at Dowling College, Saidens became certified to teach in 1997, and was offered a leave-replacement position at Birchwood Intermediate School in Huntington Station. This first teaching experience was a special one, he said, because although he stayed at Birchwood for only a year, he bonded with his students so much that he still keeps in touch with many of them today.
In 1998, he was hired by the Smithtown School District to teach fourth grade at Accompsett Elementary School. He began teaching second grade at Mills Pond Elementary School in 2002.
His first educational leadership role came in 2003, when he became an assistant principal at Thomas J. Lahey Intermediate School in the Harborfields School District. He stayed there until 2005, when he became the principal of the East Islip Early Childhood Center, where he oversaw a school of roughly 500 students, all under age 6.
Saidens’s longest tenure was as principal of Tamarack Elementary School in Sachem, from 2010 to 2019. Then, in January, he became the district’s special education director, and oversaw the education of over 2,000 of the district’s 13,000 students.
Throughout his career, he has emphasized developing and maintaining relationships with students and their parents. Tteachers, he said, need to listen to understand, not necessarily to respond. It is important to build trust, he said, as well as to celebrate students’ strengths while helping them master the skills they need to succeed. The concept of “yet” is vital, he said, because it represents a student’s ability to accomplish something in the future, even if it does not yet seem possible.
Locust Valley’s new superintendent, Dr. Ken Graham, is also coming from the Sachem School District, where he worked with Saidens for four years. Graham said he was excited to bring Saidens to Locust Valley to serve in the same role he did in Sachem, and he described Saidens as a great problem solver whose primary focus is on students’ needs.
“I think his mindset and philosophy related to providing opportunities for all students,” Graham said. “It’s really a belief system that I share, and I’ve seen it firsthand . . . One of the unique qualities of Mr. Saidens is even in a program that large, he was able to make relationships with students and families, and I think that will translate well here.”
Saidens said he came to Locust Valley to work with special-education students on a more intimate level, hoping to build relationships with families in a district with a smaller population.
“Locust Valley is a wonderful, close-knit community, and I’m honored and privileged to be able to become a part of it,” he said. “Hopefully, within a short period of time, I’ll be able to become a fiber of the community, especially in our department for kids with special needs.
“I’m very excited to join the Locust Valley community,” he added, “and I look forward to meeting our families, our teachers, our staff and, most importantly, our students.”