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ACSE Membership and Liaisons

Directory of the Advisory Commission on Special Education (ACSE), including Commissioner, liaison and staff contact information.

Commission Member Names, Email Address, Term, and Appointing Body

Commissioners Term Appointment
Russell Michaud
03/09/23–12/31/24 California State Board of Education
Sarah Notch
California State Board of Education
Christine Oyakawa
01/01/24–12/31/27 California State Board of Education
Barbara Sorter
01/01/24–12/31/27 California State Board of Education
Matthew Wilkins
03/09/23–12/31/24 California State Board of Education

Elizabeth A. Estes


Governor's Office

Victoria Graf
06/21/22–12/31/25 Governor's Office
April Lopez


Governor's Office

Heather Snipes
06/21/22–12/31/25 Governor's Office
Dawn Hamilton
02/06/20–12/31/23 State Assembly
Betty Lieu
06/05/23–12/31/25 State Assembly

Jeannine Topalian


State Assembly

Gloria Ruiz
04/04/24–12/31/27 State Senate
David M. Toston, Sr.
State Senate

In accordance with the ACSE Bylaws, Article I, Section 4, Tenure, "Every Commissioner whose term has expired may continue to discharge the duties of his/her office until his/her successor has qualified."

Student Commissioner Member Names

Rachael Ding

Saran Tugsjargal

Legislative Members

State Senate Member
Honorable Marie Alvarado-Gil

State Assembly Member
James Gallagher

State Board of Education Liaison

Alison Yoshimoto-Towery, Liaison, State Board of Education

Director of State Special Schools

Nancy Hlibok Amann, Director, State Special Schools and Services Division, California Department of Education

Executive Secretary

Rachel Heenan, Ed.D., Director, Special Education Division, California Department of Education

Commission Staff Liaisons

Advisory Commission on Special Education Member Biographies

David M. Toston, Sr., Chair

David M. Toston, Sr. is originally from Compton, California, and credits his mother and kindergarten through grade 12 educators for showing him the importance of education and preparing him for a life of public service. A graduate in English and Education at Pacific Union College, Toston received his Masters of Education in School Psychology at Azusa Pacific University and completed the Educational Leadership program at Western Washington University.

Currently, as a Senior Advisor at the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence, Toston leads in the development of direct technical assistance guidance and resources that local educational agencies (LEAs) can utilize to improve instructional quality and advance achievement for all students, especially our most vulnerable students. He also works in partnership with the California Department of Education (CDE) and State Board of Education (SBE) in leveraging the assistance of leads identified across the state of California to support LEAs in improving outcomes for students (e.g., Special Education Local Plan Area [SELPA] Leads, Literacy Leads, etc.).

Before his current position, Toston was an Associate Superintendent with the El Dorado County Office of Education. In this role, he provided leadership and oversight of the professional learning systems, programmatic and fiscal oversight framework for the El Dorado SELPAs and Statewide Initiatives. During this time, he was also an adjunct Professor with Loyola Marymount University, where he taught graduate courses in the Department of Urban Education. Additionally, Toston has served in a variety of regional leadership roles in California and Washington.

Toston's extensive experience in the California educational system includes leadership and participation in numerous professional organizations and state committees. In 2017 he was appointed by the California Assembly to the Advisory Commission on Special Education (ACSE). In 2020 he was elected as the Chair of ACSE, becoming the first African American to hold this role. He has previously served as the Vice-Chair for ACSE and the Chair for the Coalition for Adequate Funding in Special Education.

David believes his professional achievements reflect his family, employers, mentors, and teammates’ exemplary support and inspiration.

Dr. Victoria Graf, Vice Chair

Victoria L. Graf, Ph.D., Professor Emerita, is the former Academic Program Director for the Special Education Program at Loyola Marymount University where she served as a professor preparing educators to work with students with disabilities and supporting inclusive education in general education for over 40 years. Currently, she is serving as Past-President of the California Association of Professors of Special Education (CAPSE)/Teacher Education Division (TED) of the Council for Exceptional Children. Dr. Graf serves as an original member of the Collaboration for Effective Educator Development, Accountability, and Reform (CEEDAR) California State Leadership Team and was a technical advisor for the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing (CTC) Education Specialist California Teaching Performance Assessment (CalTPA) Design Team.

Dr. Graf has served on numerous State of California task forces and work groups related to the education of individuals with disabilities focused on the preparation of educators including the California Statewide Special Education Task Force. She was the Task Force Co-Chair of the Education Preparation and Professional Learning Subcommittee along with Dr. Ann Halvorsen. Her scholarship includes serving as the Principal Investigator on several U.S. Department of Education grants preparing educators to serve individuals with disabilities, in addition to many conference presentations and publications.

Dr. Graf also serves on the Boards of both public and private schools. In addition to her work in the United States, Dr. Graf is involved in numerous international projects in South Sudan, South Africa, Ireland, and Northern Ireland all involving the inclusion of individuals on the margins especially girls and children with disabilities.

Elizabeth Estes

Elizabeth A. Estes is an attorney with the California education law firm Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Rudd & Romo. In college, Elizabeth found herself the victim of a violent hostage crisis that solidified her commitment to supporting California’s children and those who serve them. Since then, she has spent nearly 30 years representing school districts and dependent children in California and is an expert in all aspects of special education and student services. Elizabeth has been integral in training attorneys and staff across child serving agencies statewide, and been at the forefront of developing integrated care programs and alternative dispute resolution processes for agencies seeking to jointly serve students and preemptively and effectively address disputes. Elizabeth is the Founder of Breaking Barriers, a nonprofit working to ensure that all of California’s children receive the services and supports necessary for them to succeed in school and society, nurtured by healthy families and strong communities. She is a frequent presenter who graduated from Loyola Law School (J.D.) in 1994 and University of California, Berkeley (B.A.) in 1991.

Dawn Hamilton

Dawn Hamilton earned a Bachelor of Science in Journalism from the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Kansas in 1997. Shortly thereafter, she left the Midwest and headed west. The next decade saw her honing her public relations acumen first at Metropolitan Group in Portland, Oregon, and then at SNL Communications in Los Angeles. In 1997, she co-founded Kapor Hamilton Public Relations, a lifestyle public relations agency specializing in the fashion, fitness, outdoor and action sports industries.

In 2011, Dawn and her husband, Adam, welcomed their one and only child, Emerson (also known as, Emmy). A lack of oxygen at birth lead to Emerson’s diagnosis of cerebral palsy. Because of Emerson, Dawn has become a staunch advocate for families dealing with the day-to-day challenges that having a child with a multiple disabilities and complex medical issues brings with it. It has also opened her eyes to the importance of access, equity, and inclusion for people with disabilities in all aspects of life, including education.

Dawn was appointed to the Advisory Commission on Special Education by California Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon in 2020. She also serves on the Board of Directors for the CHIME Institute, a national leader in the development and implementation of inclusive education where her daughter is currently a fifth grader thriving both academically and socially due to full inclusion.

Previously, Dawn served on the CHIME Institute Early Education Committee, the Board of Trustees for the North Los Angeles County Regional Center, and the Parent Professional Advisory Committee for the TLC Early Learning Center.

Dr. April Lopez

Dr. April Lopez is an Orange County-based Doctor of Chiropractic. Since 2001 she has owned and operated a successful practice in the city of Orange near Angel Stadium. She is the married mother of three high school-aged children. Her oldest is Isabella, a thriving young girl born with Down Syndrome and Autism who attends public high school in Orange County. Dr. Lopez is a highly regarded volunteer advocate for parents of children with disabilities pertaining to Individual Education Plans (IEPs)/Independent External Evaluation (IEE) and due process. She is a strong advocate for inclusion in California schools.

Dr. Lopez has received recognition in the California state senate as “Woman of the Year” by State Senators Lou Correa and Josh Newman. She recently served as an Advisory Board Member for the Albert Pujols Family Foundation. The foundation is committed to offering recreational programs to individuals with Down Syndrome and improving the lives of families living in poverty in the Dominican Republic. She currently serves on the Board of Directors for Special Olympics Southern California. The iconic organization enriches the lives of 35,000 athletes with intellectual disabilities and their communities in Southern California through sports, education, and athlete health. Governor Brown appointed Dr. Lopez in 2012 as a family advocate representative to the State Council on Developmental Disabilities. In 2014 she was elected to the council’s executive board, served as its chairperson, and held leadership positions on its Legislative and Public Policy Committee, Membership Committee, and Monitoring and Technical Assistance Review System Committee. In 2016 Dr. Lopez was appointed to and continues to serve on the Regional Center of Orange County Self-Determination Program Local Advisory Committee. The committee provides Orange County consumers and their families with freedom, control, and responsibility in choosing services and supports to help them meet their Individual Program Plan objectives. In 2018 Dr. Lopez was appointed by Governor Brown, and subsequently re-appointed by Governor Newsom, to the Advisory Commission on Special Education (ACSE). The ACSE provides recommendations and advice to the State Board of Education, the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, the Legislature, and the Governor in new or continuing research areas, program development, and evaluation in California special education.

Dr. Lopez was instrumental in the lobbying efforts at the state capitol to ensure the passage and signing into law of Assembly Bill 1041 (Chesbro) Employment First Policy; Senate Bill (SB) 468 (Emmerson/Beall/Mitchell) the Statewide Self-Determination Program; and SB 555 (Correa) Developmental services, regional centers, individual program plans, and individualized family service plans.

Dr. Lopez knows first-hand the challenges the parents of children with disabilities face every day in our public schools. She is an advocate for our kids and their excellent teachers. She will continue to collaborate with state leaders to improve the quality of special education in California schools.

Russell Michaud

Russ Michaud is excited and humbled to serve on the Advisory Commission on Special Education. Originally hailing from Boston, MA, Russ earned his Bachelor’s Degree from Ithaca College and his Master’s Degree from San Jose State University, and holds both an Education Specialist and Administrative Services credential.

Russ has been working with and supporting individuals with exceptional needs since high school, where he worked as a camp counselor for students on the Autism Spectrum. That role ignited an interest and passion for working with neurodiverse populations, which continued in college through his role as a respite provider for the Mental Health Association.

Russ began his career in education as an education specialist in a special day class for students qualified under Emotional Disturbance. His time in the classroom provided him with a strong foundational understanding of special education in California, and was particularly impactful in shaping his perspectives on Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) and Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). During his time in the classroom, Russ served as a coach and mentor to new special education teachers in the Bay Area.

Russ currently serves as the Managing Director of Special Education for Alpha Public Schools, a small public charter network in East San Jose. He joined Alpha in 2014 as the founding Director of Special Education, and worked to build out the internal special education department, including the staffing model, compliance structures, and continuum of services.

In addition to his role at Alpha, Russ has at times served as a special education consultant to new charter schools in the Bay Area, and has had the opportunity to present at a number of conferences, including the Teach For America Bay Ed Summit, the Independent Charter Schools Symposium, and the California Charter Schools Association Conference.

Russ is a lifelong learner, and is excited and humbled to serve on the Commission in service of students, educators, and communities.

Sarah Notch

Sarah Notch is incredibly grateful to have been exposed to advocacy within the field at an early age through her mother's work as a Special Education teacher. Sarah began her career as a Special Day Class teacher for students with autism, leading teams in North Carolina, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. From the classroom she moved into an advisory capacity as a Program Specialist, supporting all of the elementary autism programs in the San Francisco Unified School District.

Her first administrative role was as the Director of Special Education at Oakland School for the Arts. It was during this position that her second son was born, who would later be diagnosed with autism, leading her through an entirely different advocacy journey in the future. Sarah has worked as a Coordinator of Special Education in a large high school district, a Director of Special Education in an elementary school district, and is now the Executive Director of Special Education and Instruction with the San Mateo County Office of Education.

Over the course of her twenty-year career, she has served in rural and urban districts, in public and charter settings, working with students from birth to age 22. As not only a professional in the field, but also as a parent of a child with a disability, Sarah believes passionately in advocacy, access, and empowerment. In her current role, she partners with districts to help them identify and remove barriers, encourage authentic stakeholder engagement, and provide educators with the tools and training they need to revolutionize the definition and provision of a truly inclusive, equitable educational experience. She is honored to serve alongside her esteemed Commissioner colleagues in this work on behalf of students, families, and educators across the state. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and sons, who enjoy watching her ford rivers and hike up mountains on their many backcountry camping trips.

Christine Oyakawa

Christine Oyakawa is the Advisory Commission on Special Education (ACSE) liaison for Low Incidence Disability and State Special Schools and also serves on the ACSE Grazer Outstanding Achievement in Learning (GOAL) Award Committee. She is also a parent member of the Special Education California Teaching Performance Assessment Design Team for the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing.

Oyakawa currently serves as Board President of Teach Another Language to Kids, a second language program for elementary students in Davis, California. As the mother of a child who has 22q11.2 Deletion Syndrome and is Hard of Hearing, she is grateful for the opportunity to serve on ACSE. She hopes to contribute to its important discussions regarding research, programs and policy, with the ultimate goal of improving educational and life opportunities for all children with disabilities in California.

Oyakawa previously worked as an employment law attorney, specializing in employment discrimination law. She is licensed to practice law in California, previously volunteered as a special education advocate, and continues to stay current in issues of special education law. She has been an active member of and advocate for the Deaf/Hard of Hearing community.

Oyakawa received her bachelor’s degree in Public Policy Studies from the University of Chicago, and her juris doctor from New York University School of Law.

Gloria Ruiz

I have the distinct honor of being Pete’s wife and mom to PJ and Jack. PJ was born in traumatic fashion in February of 1999 and diagnosed with autism when he was about three years old. That diagnosis devastated us as a family. It also brought some of the best people life had to offer into our lives. Almost all the medical doctors, teachers, administrators, Individualized Education Plan (IEP) teams that have collaborated with my son over the years are still in his life, and in his corner. That is how I have come to connect with many people, friends, and professionals, who would help shape the amazing person my son has become. The autism diagnosis was the start of my involvement with the special needs community. My son is 22 and transitioning into the adult world of Intellectual Disability. Our autism diagnosis somehow carved out a crazy, difficult, and now rewarding niche for me as PJ’s mom.

I am thrilled to be a part of this large community, team, where Parent Engagement, navigating often complicated systems, most importantly sharing experiences and information with each other is the life blood of our team. I was a Family Support Specialist with the East Los Angeles Family Resource Center for three years. I was immersed in Early Start trainings, symposiums, and networks. I have had the honor of providing support, information, education, resources, and training to individuals with disabilities and their families. I am affiliated with Family Voices of California as a Project Leadership Trainer. I am a certified trainer for The Standards of Quality for Family Strengthening through the National Family Strengthening Network NFSN.

All that matters to me, is that scared, mentally exhausted families looking for help, get the help they need. That families seeking help have the opportunity to become relieved, energized, and cause in the matter of managing and balancing their family lives. The health of the family will determine the attitudes of the children, and the confidence and patience they bring to every task and challenge. This is exactly where my passion lives. Strengthening families so all children can thrive.

Heather Snipes

Heather Snipes is a lifelong resident of Humboldt County, a rural coastal community tucked in the Redwoods of Northern California. She credits her desire to care for and learn from others to her close-knit family and has known from a young age that she would dedicate her life to being one of the ‘Helpers’ Mister Rogers’ mom told him about.

Heather began her career working with young children as an assistant in a friend’s family childcare program in 2005 and has gone on to serve her community in many different capacities over the past fifteen years, always returning to education and advocacy for young children and their families. Her professional experiences also include teaching preschool at the College of the Redwoods Child Development Center from 2007 to 2011, working as an Early Head Start Teacher at Hoopa Valley Tribal Early Head Start from 2011 to 2012, broadening her professional capacity as an Emergency Communications Dispatcher Trainee at the City of Eureka Police Department from 2012 to 2013, and eventually returning to Eureka City Schools (ECS), the same district she attended as a child. Heather wore many hats at ECS between 2013 and 2022 including, Director of Early Childhood Development and Special Education, Assistant Director of Early Childhood Education, Preschool Center Teacher, Substitute Preschool Teacher, Elementary School Secretary, High School Assistant Softball Coach, and even served as a member and President of the district High School Athletic Boosters. As the Director of Early Childhood Development and Special Education, Heather and her dedicated team at Winzler Children’s Center developed a model for high quality preschool inclusion that has been recognized and appreciated statewide. It was during this time that she realized her true passion for equity and inclusion which has led her to her current position as a Program Specialist with the Supporting Inclusive Practices Program through the El Dorado County Office of Education.

Heather earned her bachelor’s degree in Child Development from Cal Poly Humboldt in 2017 and a Master of Science degree in Early Childhood Administration, Leadership, and Management from Walden University in 2020. She is a certified Beginning Together Inclusion Facilitator, Region 1 California Preschool Instructional Network Instructor, and active member of the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Dr. Barbara Sorter

As Administrator, Special Education/Career Vocational, Dr. Barbara Sorter is responsible for overseeing one of the biggest Transition Partnership Programs (TPP) in the State of California. She works collaboratively with the Department of Rehabilitation, local school districts, and industry leaders to provide work readiness skills, work experience opportunities, and vocational rehabilitation services to students within Riverside County. Dr. Sorter additionally oversees the Riverside County Office of Education (RCOE) Project Search Program at Riverside Community Hospital, the Workability 1 Grant, and the Employment Network/Ticket-to-Work services.

Barbara has been in the field of special education for over 25 years. Over the years, she has been a teacher, instructional specialist, vice-principal, principal, and administrator. She holds a moderate/severe teaching credential with added authorizations in Orthotic Impairments and Traumatic Brain Injuries and certified in Assistive Technology Applications. She has a Master’s degree in Special Education & Education Administration. She holds a doctorate in Higher Education Leadership & Organization from California Lutheran University. Her dissertation focused on the transition and retention of students with autism at a four-year university. She has been a special education teacher in both the resource setting and supporting students under the eligibility of emotional disturbance. She was part of a team who designed and launched the districts first adult transition program and established the districts first special education sports day.

Barbara has dedicated her life to supporting educators, families, and students with disabilities. She is passionate about training the next generation of teachers and has severed as a Teacher Induction Coach and serves on the Executive Board of the California Council of Exceptional Children. She serves as a Special Education Academy Director for the Association California School Administrators (ACSA) and presents at numerous ACSA events. Barbara was the 2019 ACSA Administrator of the Year for Region 19. Additionally, Barbara serves on the Executive Board for the Riverside County SELPA Community Advisory Committee where she works collaboratively with the team to provide high quality trainings to parents.

Barbara is both a certified Workplace Appreciation Coach and Health and Wellness coach. She is currently presenting at conferences on staff, family, and student well-being. Barbara’s son is an environmental lawyer and together they have recently started presenting on the intersectionality of how the environment impacts the well-being of students with disabilities. During the COVID lock down, Barbara was awarded a grant to provide in-home gardens to students and their families of the Project Search Program.

Being a servant leader is important to Barbara. She is on the Board of Directors of Santa Claus Inc.

Dr. Jeannine Topalian

Dr. Topalian’s experience as a student with a disability set the groundwork for her future career path as a School Psychologist. At a young age, she realized her learning needs were different than her classmates. The learning challenges she encountered during her primary school years were remediated when Dr. Topalian was eventually identified, yet due to cultural and social stigma did not receive the support and services during her schooling. Dr. Topalian needed to work even harder to make up for all the gaps in her learning. Despite her learning challenges, Dr. Topalian persevered, learned about her strengths, and continued her education through graduate school.

Dr. Topalian’s professional experience in the area of education and mental health has spanned over 22 years. She is the current President of the California Association of School Psychologists (CASP) and serves as a Specialist in Psychological Services in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Her experience includes working with both primary and secondary levels conducting bilingual Armenian assessments, school neuropsychological assessments, psycho-educational assessments as well as providing students with Designated Instructional Services, Educationally Related Intensive Counseling Services and Counseling Services, and crisis counseling. Dr. Topalian is a Licensed Educational Psychologist and holds a Doctorate in Educational Psychology, Administrative Services Credential, postgraduate certification in School Neuropsychology, Master’s in Counseling and School Psychology, and a Pupil Personnel Services Credential in School Psychology.

She has extensive knowledge of and experience in working with culturally diverse youth. She has collaborated with various community partners and leaders to better leverage resources and improve student services programming at her schools and at the District level. She continuously strives to bridge the gap between school programs and community partners by overseeing the training and provision of education and mental health programs for the youth of the community by increasing parental involvement. Dr. Topalian works collaboratively with principals, schools and support staff, school psychologist interns and fieldwork students, parents, students, and community partners to implement school-wide instructional, crisis, social-emotional, and behavioral prevention and intervention programs to mitigate issues that interfere with student’s mental health and academic learning specifically with students with special needs. Dr. Topalian is trained, licensed, and certified to assess, evaluate, and service students within all 13 areas of qualification, including students with attention-deficit/ hyperactivity disorder, dyslexia, neurological disorders, intellectual delays, autism, emotional disturbance, specific learning disabilities, and other health impairments.

Matthew Wilkins

Matthew Wilkins began his career as an educator with the Washington Unified School District in Yolo County. During his tenure with the District, Matthew served as a classroom teacher, an instructional coach, and a program specialist supporting district-wide academic programs. While employed with the District, Matthew remained dedicated to his community, and in 2012, he became a licensed foster care parent with the goal of providing a nurturing environment to the foster children who have been placed in his care. His strong desire to maintain each child’s connection to their community and culture, along with his passion to advocate for the children in his care have provided him with the parent’s perspective navigating specialized healthcare systems, social services, regional center services, recreational activities, and special education – all of which are essential to the child’s success.

His dedication to the field of education led Matthew to seek a State-level position as an Education Programs Consultant in the Special Education Division of the California Department of Education. In this capacity he was responsible for monitoring local educational agencies throughout the state of California and providing technical assistance and support. His assignments routinely required collaboration with stakeholders to identify opportunities for growth which improve educational outcomes for students with disabilities.

In 2021, Matthew began serving in his current position as an Education Administrator for the California Department of Developmental Services where he oversees special education; adult education; and integrated education and training programs for individuals residing in state residential facilities operated by the Department of Developmental Services and the Department of State Hospitals. Matthew’s expertise and experience allows him to establish and maintain productive relationships between state operated facilities and local educational agencies ensuring educational opportunities are provided in the least restrictive environment and in a community setting when appropriate.

Public service and advocacy are a cornerstone in Matthew’s life. He connects with families sharing common experiences and participates on multiple boards, committees, and workgroups to further equitable opportunities for all Californians.

Questions:   Special Education Division | | 916-445-4602
Last Reviewed: Tuesday, April 09, 2024
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