Every school board policy manual acknowledges that the active role of parents/guardians is essential in order to nurture student achievement. One of the model policies in the NJSBA Critical Policy Reference Manual (CPRM) that emphasizes the importance of parental involvement states:

“The board believes that the education of children is a joint responsibility, one it shares with the parents/guardians and the school community. To ensure that the best interests of the child are served in this process, a strong program of communication between home and school must be maintained and parental involvement in district concerns encouraged.” (Excerpt from policy 5020, “Role of the Parent,” Critical Policy Reference Manual)

The day-to-day task of parents supporting their child’s education can look very different from family to family but most parents would agree that it involves a good bit of work, including monitoring homework, answering math questions, driving to meetings, and sorting the paper monster that explodes from a child’s backpack. Take this job and magnify it by the parent’s worries and concerns when their child has learning differences that make achievement in a standardized educational system a challenge. A good bit of work can become an emotional struggle with the child’s well-being and happiness at stake. Typical concerns include questions such as: Will my child be labeled? Will my child like school? Will my child find friends? Will my child fit in?

For parents who have a child with a learning difference, effective education is far from standardized. Having a more individualized educational experience can contribute to a sense of isolation and distance from the general education program.

Creating opportunities to foster communication with, and encourage input from, these parents is one means of establishing an inclusive and accepting environment, where the student fully participates in the educational program. The state of New Jersey recognizes that parent involvement is especially critical to the process of educating children with special needs and requires schools and districts to establish a program for parent involvement:

Each district board of education shall ensure that a special education parent advisory group is in place in the district to provide input to the district on issues concerning students with disabilities (N.J.A.C. 6A:14-1.2(h).

Establishing effective collaboration with the community of parents can also help reduce special education costs.

The cost-effectiveness of funding for special education was the focus of the NJSBA Task Force on Special Education in 2014. Throughout the task force report, Special Education: A Service, Not a Place, parent involvement is repeatedly mentioned.

One of the many experts the task force consulted, Dr. Matthew Jennings, superintendent of Alexandria Township School District, emphasized the value of an accepting school culture that fosters trust and collaboration between the school and parents. The district facilitated an inclusive school culture by identifying staff members with outstanding sensitivity to parental concerns and worries. These staff members were then assigned to engage the parents in the special education program at every level. Establishing strong staff and parent collaboration enabled the district to reduce costs by virtually eliminating the need for alternative educational placements for classified students.

While education is compulsory for children, the board has no authority to require a parent to actively participate in their child’s education beyond ensuring the basics like school attendance. How can a district or school meet the legal requirement to ensure that a special education parent advisory group is in place when it cannot require parental participation?

It is the role of the board and school administrators to encourage and support the development of special education parent advisory councils (SEPAC). The district’s legal requirement to establish parent involvement in special education is supported by state-funded resources that incur no cost to the district. START (Statewide Technical Assistance and Resources Team), a program run by the Statewide Parent Advocacy Network (SPAN) is funded by the New Jersey Department of Education to provide start-up assistance, training and ongoing support for district and school SEPACs. (SPAN is a non-profit family advocacy group; it provides resources for, among others, families with children who have disabilities.)

Karen Antone, parent group coordinator and specialist at START, and the parent of a child with learning differences, maintains that an active group of parents can be a challenge to establish and sustain for good reasons. Parents whose children have special needs have many demands on their time in addition to the regular responsibilities of being a parent. Depending on the particular circumstances, there may be therapy or medical appointments, educational meetings, and even mobility and transportation complications. It is vital that districts send a strong message that parent involvement is valued and essential and that school leaders are receptive to parental input.

The staff and volunteers at START help cultivate the connection between parents, school leaders and special education personnel. They are highly skilled, passionate and dedicated agents who are sensitive to the demands on parents while invigorating efforts to promote the collaboration necessary to an effective special education program. They use a customized approach and develop strategies for operating a SEPAC that reflect the unique circumstances of the district or school. START stresses that the SEPAC should be initiated and run by parent volunteers and at a minimum, one or more interested parents should be involved and/or identified by the district to begin the group. Any parent may participate and parents with children who have learning differences are encouraged to become stakeholders regardless of the type or severity of the educational issue. Key district staff members and board members are also encouraged to participate and can even contact the START program for assistance setting up or reinvigorating their SEPAC.

Once contacted, START offers a wide array of resources and services including in-district training and workshops on starting and running a SEPAC. Topics for establishing an effective SEPAC include developing active participation within the community of parents, the role of the SEPAC, communication with the public, methods of notification of meetings and meeting agendas. They provide training on how to establish effective communication between the parents, staff and the board for the purpose of identifying useful recommendations for the improvement of the special education program.

START also provides ongoing services for SEPACs across the state. They provide support and consultation to parent volunteers through email, phone and meetings. START’s county representatives host regular county meetings where area SEPAC members congregate to share resources, discuss successes, work on problems, establish goals, and network.

Laura Lab, West Orange board member and NJSBA Special Education Committee member, began a SEPAC in her district and operated it for 11 years. She stressed that the SEPAC has a vital role as an advisory group that provides constructive recommendations for systemic changes in the operation of the special education program. In the past, her district would frequently move the special education classes around the district. Her SEPAC was able to provide input and information on the importance of consistent room and facility use for continuity in the educational program and inclusion of the children in the school. This led to more stable placement of the special education classes in the schools. The SEPAC also spearheaded a scholarship program for the students in the special education program that is still ongoing and provides scholarships specifically for students with learning differences. Although SEPACs are not fund-raising organizations, the model is flexible and some groups raise funds for special initiatives.

Susie Budine, director of pupil personnel services for the Kenilworth district, reported that sustaining their local SEPAC had been a real challenge despite many efforts to increase parent participation. She contacted START to provide training to district parents on what a SEPAC is, what it does, and best practices for running the group. “We were thrilled to have about 20 people attend the presentation in such a small district on a cold, wintery night!,” Budine wrote in an email. “I will be working with our parent representative to put together the components of the SEPAC and to get the group up and running. We are excited about the prospect of having an active group of parents to work with the administration and board on matters related to special education. We are hoping to develop a strong advisory board that can support one another, others around them and be a source of input from the parents.”

Budgetary constraints are a challenge for every board and every district should take full advantage of resources like START that are already funded. Supporting an inclusive, nurturing environment where each student has the opportunity to fully participate in the educational program is an important priority for school leaders.

For more information about the resources available through START, the Statewide Technical Assistance and Resources Team, contact: Dianne Malley, START Project Director, Statewide Parent Advocacy Network, 35 Halsey Street, 4th Floor, Newark, NJ 07102, (856) 397-5294.Visit SPAN’s website.