In March, we had 40 parents and community members come out to support and share their stories at the first Special Education Parent Advocacy Summit in Hamilton County. UnifiEd spent the last month synthesizing the thoughts, experiences and questions that came up in the meeting in order to make policy recommendations for the future.

During small group breakouts we discussed 4 questions:

  1. What is your opinion of the state of special education in Hamilton County?
  2. What is the most and least effective thing an educator or parent can do to help support your child?
  3. What education policies form the federal, state or local government would you like to see changed? What policies are the most helpful?
  4. What can parents and community members do to make changes?

The conversations about the current state of special education in Hamilton County emphasized three primary topics: (1) inclusion in the typical classroom setting, (2) improved Individualized Education Program (IEP) process for teachers and parents, and (3) consistency in special education programs between schools.One parent shared, “My son is autistic and by being in that inclusion, he’s getting social interaction that he needs.” Another participant agreed saying, “It teaches the typically developing kids how to be loving and compassionate toward special needs kids.” Many parents and teachers mentioned their frustration with the IEP process and feel that the meetings can often times feel unproductive. On parent said, “So many times I find that teachers and educators aren’t taught to write an IEP that somebody else can read from.” All groups agreed, “There seems to be a huge disparity between the schools, even in regular education.” Many parents also felt, “Special needs moms and dads who are also parents of typical children should be able to send their entire family to one school.”

Discussions about the most and least effective thing educators and parents can do to help support children highlighted two important issues: (1) improved communication and relationships between parents and teachers and (2) increased administrative support from school principals. One parent voiced, “I think it’s that the principal and the parent have to support the teacher and the parent has to start the process with the child. If you break that link anywhere it will be unsuccessful.” All groups discussed the importance of supportive relationships between parents, teachers and the administration. Many parents agreed that they, “want the administration to be a part of the classroom.” A parent emphasized the importance of a supportive administration by sharing, “I’ve realized the best thing that’s happened for me so far this year is the relationship I’ve made with the principal. Our principal has intentionally involved himself when he didn’t have to.” Several parents also brought up the idea of implementing a parent advisory board to help advise central office around special needs issues in Hamilton County.

Many participants shared their concerns with the current policies surrounding (1) classroom visits/observations and (2) funding/resources for special education classrooms and programs. The most voiced frustration was surrounding the classroom visits and observations policy. One parent shared, “Because of the confidentiality they’ll say you can’t go into a special ed classroom when the kids are present. How it’s implemented depends on the school, but basically you can’t come unless you give 24 hours notice and are under certain circumstances.” Many agreed that, “It’s hard to know how teachers will interact with kids without going into the classroom.” Many parents would like to see an, “open door policy” where they could visit and check in on their child and classroom without facing administrative push-back. Most groups also mentioned the lack of funding for the classrooms. Many agreed when a parent said, “They need to be a little more funded. They fund for everything else. Why not the important thing?”

When speaking about making positive changes for special education in the public school system, most agreed that raising voices and advocating for parental and children rights through community organizing and increased involvement were the most important aspects of becoming change agents. On participant said parents should, “Speak up, come together, and do what we’re doing here today.” Another shared, “I think being a voice and keeping awareness is key.” While all groups agreed that, “Parents need to get involved and make changes.” All participants agreed that the meetings like the Advocacy Summit would be helpful for the future and want to stay involved in the effort.

UnifiEd is forming working groups to support parents that advocate for special education. If you are interested in joining a working group please fill out THIS SURVEY. The three working group options are: (1) Policy/Research – will work to research best practices and make policy recommendations around what works well (2)Administration/Logistics – will schedule meetings, find meeting spaces, send out emails/phone calls, and (3) Volunteer Coordination/Community Outreach – will work to expand the special needs working group and make sure the community as a whole is invited to participate.

We are planning follow-up meetings to discuss the role of the working groups and to move forward with Special Education Advocacy in Hamilton County. Working groups with meet approximately once a month and the number of hours involved will depend on the members of the working groups. More information to come!