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To show support and gratitude for health care workers, first responders, and other essential workers keeping communities safe during the COVID-19 emergency. Old Dominion University is illuminating its Education Building blue during May, as part of the national #LightItBlue campaign. Photo Chuck Thomas/ODU

Steve Tonelson, Emeritus Professor, Retires After 40 Years of Service

By Mindy Ayala-Diaz and Helena Edge

Since first stepping foot on ODU's campus in 1950, Steve Tonelson has felt that his life has revolved around this university. Now, after more than 40 years of service to the Darden College of Education and Professional Studies, he has retired as Emeritus Professor of Special Education and Early Childhood Education.


Tonelson started his career in education as a third grade teacher and has taught both general education and students with special needs. Tonelson obtained a MS. Ed. in Special Education from Old Dominion University (ODU) in 1976 and he joined the special education faculty at ODU right after completing an Ed.D. in Curriculum, Research, and Evaluation from the University of Virginia in 1980. During his tenure at ODU, he rose quickly to the rank of professor due to his efforts and commitment to the Special Education program and the Darden College of Education and Professional Studies (DCEPS). Recognition of his accomplishments in scholarship, teaching, and service include several college and university awards for Most Collaborative Grants and for Outstanding Teaching, Research, and Service. Additionally, Steve has earned national recognition as evidenced by earning the Christa McAuliffe Award for Excellence in Teacher Education from the American Association of State Colleges and Universities and an Exemplary Program Award from The American Association on Rural Special Education.

Steve diligently served the special education program through the teaching, advising, and mentoring of both undergraduates and graduate students as they completed teacher preparation programs in special education. Furthermore, he used his knowledge and skills to assist in the preparation and implementation of special education coursework, beginning by developing classes to be delivered on campus in traditional classroom spaces, through the expansion of the special education program into one of the largest distance learning programs at ODU. Steve's passion for improving teacher education and implementation of evidence-based practices in schools and communities led to the publication of numerous articles, monographs, and book chapters, as well as in securing over $25,000,000.00 in grants from the U.S. and Virginia Departments of Education. Steve channeled these funds into highly successful teacher preparation programs including the Commonwealth Special Education Endorsement Program (CSEEP) and the Paraprofessional Preparation for Extraordinary Teaching (PPET). Recently, these opportunities culminated in the creation of the Center for Implementation and Evaluation of Education Systems (CIEES) at ODU, of which Steve remains the director.

Finally, during his time at ODU, Steve also maintained an extraordinary level of service to the teaching profession and to the community. He built and maintained mutually beneficial relationships with various K-12 education stakeholders at the local, state, and national levels. Furthermore, Steve's commitment to the community is evidenced through the time he spent as a member of the Norfolk Public School Board and on the board of the Epilepsy Foundation of Virginia Board. Based on all of Steve's accomplishments and contributions to ODU, he is truly worthy of emeritus status. Steve plans to spend his retirement catching up with his family, traveling, and spending time in the mountains. He also looks forward to continuing his work with CIEES.

Tonelson's wholehearted commitment to ODU has not gone unnoticed. Dean Tammi Dice shared, "Dr. Tonelson has provided exceptional service to the Darden College of Education and Professional Studies, ODU, and the field of special education for the past 40 years. His scholarship, teaching, and mentorship have helped to advance the field and positively shape innumerable special education teachers. He will be deeply missed as a full-time faculty member at ODU, but we are fortunate to continue to benefit from his expertise while he remains actively involved with the CIEES, of which he launched. Ultimately, due to his impactful and meaningful work, Dr. Tonelson's legacy will live on at ODU forever."

Jonna Bobzien, department chair for CDSE, has worked with Tonelson extensively. "Working with Steve has been a pleasure over these years. Our department will never forget the difference he's made in our field, to our university, and to our schools. Thank you for your years of hard work and dedication, and congrats on your retirement!"

Retirement hasn't gotten in the way of Tonelson's tireless dedication to the university. "Given my background, I hope to remain involved with the university, not only as I transition from my position, but for many years to come," he shared.

A reception for Tonelson will be held on Tuesday, November 1st. Please contact CDSE@odu.edu for more information.

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