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Meet Stephen Fusco: From Special Education Teacher to Corporate Counsel

Stephen Fusco
 
One of the things you notice straight off about Stephen Fusco when you first meet and talk to him is that he is well-versed and prolific in so many ways — in his academic pursuits, his work and career, his interests, and in his volunteer and charitable activities. Another thing that immediately becomes clear: He is not afraid of change, and he openly embraces every opportunity that comes his way.
 
Read on to learn more about how Stephen found the perfect way to channel his special education and law background — and his passion for helping children — here at HopSkipDrive.
 

Where do you live, how long have you worked for HopSkipDrive, and what do you do for the company?

I started with HopSkipDrive in April of 2021. I live in Denver, and my official title is Corporate Counsel. I handle all of our contracting and a variety of other legal issues.
 

How did you hear about HopSkipDrive and what made you want to work here?

Through Trish Donahue, who is Vice President of Legal and Policy. We met through a mutual acquaintance of ours in Colorado, and then one day she sent me an email and said, I know you have a job right now but I’m looking to hire someone. Do you know anyone? And I said well, actually, I’m interested. 
 
And it fit perfectly with my job experience. I had been a lawyer for about 14 years when I decided to step away from the practice of law and I went into education. I was a special education teacher, and then I became a building leader. And then I moved to Denver to become Deputy General Counsel for the Denver Public Schools system. And I was also finishing up my PhD at the time in education — I finished my PhD in May — and it was really the perfect fit for me with my education, special education and law background.
 

What made you make that shift in your career?

Part of it was, I was burned out. At the time, I was General Counsel for a national medical lab and I just couldn’t do it anymore. I had been a Special Olympics coach and I was at a meet with one of my athletes and someone said to me: Have you ever thought of being a special education teacher? And I was actually looking to get out of law. So, I just . . . quit my job. And when I quit, I decided to apply to Georgia State and the application deadline was a week later. So I got my application in and was accepted. And that’s how I started a master’s in special education. 
 
After that I got my teaching certificate, and I taught for almost five years in a psychiatric hospital for kids with severe emotional and behavioral disabilities. I will honestly say it was the most rewarding work I’ve ever done — not that HopSkipDrive isn’t — but working there was truly so rewarding. It was also challenging but I will say this: If I were asked to do it again and I was in that phase of my life, I would say yes.
 

Tell me about your experience with the Special Olympics.

I was a swim coach for the Special Olympics, and that’s where I really got introduced to special education. One of my dear friends had taught me how to swim — she was a swim coach — and when I got really proficient at swimming, she had too many clients and asked if I would be interested in working with some of them to teach swimming. So I said, sure.
 
Three of the clients I worked with were individuals with autism, and they were going to the Special Olympics State Championships in Georgia, which is where I lived at the time. And so I took them to the Special Olympics State Championships, and they each won a gold medal. I loved it!
 

Have you done other volunteer work?

I would say the Special Olympics is primarily the one I have focused on. Most of my other activities are part of state boards related to special education. I sit on the Colorado Special Education Advisory Committee, which is required by federal law — every state has one — so you’re appointed by the state board of education. I also sit on the board of Special Olympics Colorado, on their Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee. I also am on their Education Leaders Network, which is the liaison between educators and Special Olympics to help them approve their programming. My other big volunteer activity is the Morgridge College of Education ELPS program — which is Educational Leadership and Policy Studies. I am on their Alumni Advisory Committee.
 

Tell me about your own educational journey.

I went to Emory University for my undergraduate and law school in Atlanta. I then got a master’s in education at Georgia State. And I just graduated in May of this year with my PhD in Education Leadership & Policy Studies from the University of Denver. I am officially telling people I’m done! 
 

What is it about your background that makes you suited for your job at HopSkipDrive?

Since I left that general counsel position at the medical lab, I’ve been interested in student equity. And so anything that improves student outcomes, student experiences — their lived experiences — is what I have focused my career on. That is sort of the beginning of what I was interested in with HopSkipDrive. 
 
I also like the fact that HopSkipDrive is focused on building a new way of thinking about student transportation. And I like being able to be involved at the ground level to do that — not only from a product perspective but also in my day-to-day work. I’ve gotten to work on implementing our data security and privacy policies and all of our programming around that. So it’s that ability to be involved from the ground up, have a voice at the table and set how the company moves forward. For all of these reasons, I think it was a natural fit.
 

So you must have had examples in your previous work where this type of service would have been useful? 

Oh yeah. When I left my job as Deputy General Counsel for Denver Public Schools, I actually went to work for an organization called Advocacy Denver. I worked as an educational advocate as a pro bono lawyer for them, and I only did special education work. And so, the need for this type of transportation solution came up regularly. Transportation came up all the time for me — a lot of children who are labeled disabled can’t take traditional student transportation. And so parents had to keep them at home, or also there were all kinds of medical reasons why children need different things. So I had a lot of experience with that. 
 

There are many different areas where the law is important in terms of what we do [at HopSkipDrive]. You mentioned privacy and data security before but what other types of things do you work on?

Because we’re regulated as a Transportation Network Company (TNC), there’s always those issues of our CareDrivers and qualifications. And when you work with local governments, one of the things that makes my job very different is that you really do have to understand government contracting and how to navigate that world and space. 
 

And it’s different in each state, the laws and the rules.

Yes, they’re different in every state. And government work is way different than if HopSkipDrive were just contracting with another private company. There’s all kinds of laws that apply in doing government work. So that comes into play.
 
And special education issues also come up all the time in terms of understanding what IEPs do, and what the McKinney-Vento Act is and how that applies to children experiencing homelessness and children in foster care systems. So there’s all these different areas that apply.
 
And you also need to understand education law. You have to understand FERPA, which is the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which deals with student privacy and education rights. So all of that comes into play in this job, and it really is different from a lot of other work because we are a transportation arranger — not a provider — and we are also in an education space. 
 

What do you love most about your job or working for HopSkipDrive? 

Two things: One is the mission-driven approach. I do love that we have a mission and we have a purpose — and that it’s clear. It’s very clear what we are here to do. And that, to me, is not only good for my personal values and beliefs and the work I do, but it also makes it easy to do my job. It makes it easy for me to understand what I’m doing and to make decisions when I have that clear focus. 
 
The other thing is: Hands-down, the people I work with here are some of the best people I’ve ever worked with. 
 

Have you learned anything surprising from the people you work with or clients?

Yes, a couple of things. One, I didn’t realize how expensive school bus transportation was. I really didn’t have a sense. I thought this is a great alternative and it’s providing access to certain areas but I didn’t appreciate the cost savings. I had thought it was actually going to be for the schools with deep pocketbooks versus all schools being able to offer transportation. I think that was a pleasant surprise.
 
I am also pleasantly surprised, although it makes my job extremely hard at times, that school districts are very concerned about their students, and student privacy and data — and making sure students and families have good experiences. I knew that, of course, because I worked in a school as a leader and I preached that. But I think schools get a bad rap. There’s just this overall sense that educational systems are broken and they’re just not interested in student outcomes. I would fundamentally disagree. In fact, school districts have negotiated contracts harder than many private clients I’ve worked with. They take student safety and those sorts of things very seriously. 
 

What advice would you give someone who is thinking about joining the HopSkipDrive team?

I would say it’s a fantastic company for individuals who really want to understand the entrepreneurial spirit, and who like the idea of getting their hands dirty and having a seat at the table from the start. It’s something that separates us. If you’re someone who’s looking at your life and saying, I want to explore a new area and I need to find a company that’s going to give me the support and the growth opportunity — I think that’s what makes HopSkipDrive so incredibly fantastic.
 
The other thing is, I have never worked somewhere where there is so much transparency as a company. I was shocked at the amount of transparency about the sort of things that happen, and the ownership of mistakes. 
 

What do you tell friends and family about HopSkipDrive?

I tell them it’s one of the best places I’ve worked. I say that from a couple of perspectives; I say that for my managers, for one. Also, there’s an ownership of work and an appreciation that we’re all human beings — we’re not perfect but we do our best. We might make mistakes. Just own your mistakes, and move on. 
 

What do you see or hope for the future of the company?

I think this company will be in every state. I think we’re only going to continue to see growth, and I actually think we are through some major growing pains — we’ve put systems in place that make it easy to scale up. I think it will be amazing to see the growth that’s going to happen. 

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