Customer Love: The New Mexico UDL Project’s Janea Menicucci

by Mary Pembleton

“We don’t ever say the word initiative,” Janea Menicucci of the New Mexico UDL Project says. “We’re changing the narrative.”

Janea Menicucci

Janea Menicucci is a vibrant, kind and charismatic educator whose dedication to students is clear from the moment you meet her. And it’s this dedication, along with her creative thinking and drive, that’s allowed her to impact student lives on a state-wide level.

“Dyslexia is in my family,” Menicucci says, “I have signs of it. I’ve never been formally diagnosed, but I’ve always fought for making sure kids have access.

“How can I make sure that everybody has an equal opportunity? How can I teach these kids to advocate for themselves?

“That’s probably why I’m so passionate about this is because I’m actually seeing a change. I have a leadership who trusts my vision even though it’s crazy, but the crazy is bringing about change.”

Menicucci and her team launched the New Mexico UDL Project in April of 2022. They’re working with districts to “braid the 11 or 12 initiatives out there together and take things off teacher’s plates,” she says.

“Janea is a powerful advocate for change and empowerment of students and never backs down from a challenge,” says colleague Megan Shanley, OTR/L, ATP, UDL Coach, Occupational Therapist and Assistive Technology Practitioner.

When Menicucci, who is the project coordinator, says that she and five other co-workers are changing the narrative, she means it. Their state-wide UDL project is visionary in more ways than one. And it’s working. Participation in the project is voluntary for districts, but the team and the districts they partner with are building capacity quickly.

Universal Design for Learning, or UDL, is a framework for equitable learning and educational access. You can learn more about it in this blog post about UDL in education.

Menicucci has a big and noble goal: to give students a better education and move her state from 50th place in education to “something better.” The New Mexico UDL Project does this with in-person training and support, weekly check-ins and celebrations, providing free literacy and math tools to all students in participating districts, and working with districts on lesson planning.

“This has always been my vision,” Janea says, “UDL has been my heart and soul for my 23 years of teaching, no matter what I have done. How can I make sure kids have access? How can I make sure that everybody has an equal opportunity? How can I teach these kids to advocate for themselves?”

Below are seven innovative ways the The Mexico UDL Project is giving students in New Mexico educational access and equal opportunity.

1. District-wide UDL.

Sunset in the desert with plants and clouds

The New Mexico UDL Project works with entire districts, who choose to opt-in to the program for a year’s time. But in order to meet the needs and vision for each unique district, the team customizes their approach to each district they work with.

“During orientation we asked them, tell us anything and everything about your district. We want to know your goals, your vision, what initiatives you’re partaking in,” says Janea.

“This is the beauty of it. We are building this together because we want to see what works. We’re customizing it for your district.”

2. In-person trainings.

Students working around a table with a computer and a post it note wall.

Developing strong, supportive relationships with the districts they were working with was important to the team.

In their first year, the five person UDL team traveled “more than we’ve ever traveled,” Janea said.

“From July 18 to the end of August, I think we trained 900 educators, which was insane. My boss was like, are y’all alive? I was like, yep, we’re going strong!”

3. It’s a team effort.

Hands in the middle with colorful sweater sleeves

As soon as the initial application to the program, districts were asked to build a team.

“We’re trying to build capacity and boots on the ground at the schools,” Janea said, “Their teams had to consist of an administrator, a person from curriculum instruction, a person from special education, a general education classroom teacher, and any ancillary staff that they wanted to bring.”

4. The UDL Tools: Co:Writer, Snap&Read, Equatio, and uPar.

uPar Logo

All districts in the project get access to the following digital tools for any and all students in their district:

  • Co:Writer: A digital writing assistant to help get words flowing and guide students to edit their work independently.
  • Snap&Read: A literacy toolbar with read aloud tools, language translation tools, a tool to reduce distractions, note-taking tools, graphic organizers, and more.
  • uPar: An online reading protocol that provides the essential data educators need to track progress, make informed accommodation decisions, and efficiently evaluate multiple students at a time.
  • Equatio: A digital math tool that makes math and science more accessible and engaging.

5. The focus is on general education.

Students in a classroom looking at a teacher.

Universal Design for Learning is sometimes mistaken for “a special education thing.” This is a common misunderstanding, and the New Mexico UDL Project aims to correct it.

“It’s not only special ed,” Janea says, “It’s going to reduce behaviors, because I think a lot of your kids are bored. So why not give them the content that they need?”

UDL Tools work to give all students access and break down barriers to learning. That includes barriers like engagement, motivation, and boredom.

These tools can help with that by defining and pronouncing unfamiliar words with a single click, by automatically breaking down tricky concepts into easy-to-understand language, by helping students who need math challenges learn advanced equations.

This is in addition to helping students who may be reading below grade level access and work with grade level content.

“Our biggest vision is that we’re taking the theory of Universal Design for Learning and actually moving it to practice,” Janea says.

6. SWAT Teams: Students who Assist with Technology

To build expert learners’ leadership skills alongside program capacity, New Mexico UDL uses SWAT Teams to help teach other students how to use the UDL tools.

SWAT teams are made up of learners who teach other learners how to use the tools.

“They know Co:Writer, they know Snap&READ, they are champions of the tools, says Janea, “So why not give them that leadership role, but also give them another skill set?

“Many times these are our special education kids who don’t ever get that opportunity. So we’re working on that social piece for them to be an expert learner while being champions of something that they’re really proud of.”

7. The data is strong.

“It was mind blowing,” Janea says of the data districts receive after running uPar with their students.

“The teachers were like, I knew this kid could do this. And the principal was like, ‘I have real data that will fit into MLSS (or Multi Leveled Systems of Support, New Mexico’s version of MTSS). We can do data talks now.’

“At the end of quarter three, we had a 29% increase in Co:Writer usage. We had a 46% increase in written words and a 40% increase in hours spent.”

The project’s capacity building efforts are making a difference.New Mexico students are using these tools to learn and work.

What’s next for the project?

This year, they will continue to work with their initial group of Pioneers, as well as adding a new cohort, the Trailblazers.

Janea says she sees this as a three year program.

She says, “I will be able to sustain a school and pay for everything and get them through three years. I think by the third year, we have the full buy-in and momentum.

“Then by the fourth year. I feel like it’s a gradual release. We’re not sending you into the wild.

“I’m really excited to see what year two is going to bring, how we transition more into coaching more into the practices with the classroom.

“There’s a possibility we’ll be partnering with structured literacy. A lot of our small districts have one coach who is the instructional coach, the Structure Literacy person, the MLSS person and the SEL person.

“My hope is that we can keep braiding all of these things so that that coach has all the tools in their toolbox that they need.”