Look for the Helpers – Special Education Parent Advisory Councils
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”
― Fred Rogers
By Leslie Leslie
MassPAC Project Director
Things changed overnight in mid-March as schools abruptly closed and families were left with many questions. However, the Massachusetts Association of Special Education Parent Advisory Council (MassPAC) was not surprised to see its councils step up to the plate. These volunteer, parent-driven advisory groups were ready to go. Thanks to their email lists and Facebook groups, Special Education Parent Advisory Councils (SEPACs) were able to provide timely information and support to families in their communities. The helpers were working.
SEPACs were included in a Department of Early and Secondary Education (DESE) presentation to special education administrators. “Consulting with SEPAC Leadership” was defined as an essential component in developing and improving systems for providing remote services. DESE recognized the strong role that SEPACs play in advising a district and bringing families’ concerns to the district.
Over the past months, MassPAC has seen the other side of this pandemic. Good things are happening in our new virtual world. SEPACs met remotely – helping their communities, addressing parent expectations, assisting in rolling out remote learning, and providing valuable feedback to school administrators. Therefore, MassPAC thought everyone would appreciate some “good news.”
The Melrose SEPAC held virtual information sessions, as well as question and answer sessions (the SEPAC sent out a survey before the meeting) with the Assistant Superintendent.
The Acton-Boxborough SEPAC had an information session and Q&A with the Interim Special Education Director to address issues raised through the SEPAC’s school closure feedback form. Twenty parents and three team chairs attended. The SEPAC got the following thank you from one of the team chairs:
“I wanted to take a moment to thank you for the advocacy, education, and support you provide to our special needs students and families. The presentation you provided at the SEPAC meeting Wednesday evening was truly amazing. I found it incredibly clear, comprehensive, articulate, and informative. That, paired with your manner or presentation, provided all who attended a level of critical, walk-away knowledge that I presume parents craved and appreciated. Thank you also for your kind words and support toward our teachers and special education leadership…THANK YOU!”
The Amesbury SEPAC collaborated weekly with the Director of Students Services and held a parent support group every two weeks. The SEPAC helped create a survey to assess families’ experiences during the COVID-19 closure and improve special education remote learning.
Westwood SEPAC held bi-weekly Zoom support groups for parents to share distance-learning experiences. The district supported the SEPAC by advertising and having a special education department head attend each meeting.
The Tri-Town SEPAC’s meetings had high attendance from both parents and staff due to the virtual nature of the meeting. In addition, the Assistant Superintendent of Student Services set a weekly meeting with the SEPAC board to update them on issues and gather feedback from families.
Westborough SEPAC saw increased interest and involvement from members due to Zoom meetings and support groups. The SEPAC did check-ins on families that they think may be more at risk. They also participated in a read aloud during “Kindness Week” and donated copies of the book to each elementary school.
Nashoba SEPAC gathered parent feedback and many of those suggestions were incorporated into the framework. For example, there was a noticeable surge in teacher led video learning.
Somerville SEPAC hosted its first online workshop thanks to help from Massachusetts Advocates for Children. They also had a productive meeting with the Special Education Director.
The Cambridge SEPAC continued to meet virtually, alternating between business meetings and opportunities for fun. They worked together to communicate the needs of children to the school district. The SEPAC also watched movies together through “Netflix Parties” and relied on one another for emotional support.
The Wayland SEPAC Co-Chairs and Director of Student Services met weekly to communicate and discuss parent concerns and questions, working together in a positive way to find solutions to the current challenges.
The North Andover Parent Advisory Council (NAPAC) started a Community Chat with parents meeting twice a week on Zoom, The NAPAC started a YouTube channel to provide fun workshops for kids!
We are all in this together. So join the SEPAC movement. Get connected to other families in your district, provide feedback and create a better system for all students. If you need help finding your SEPAC, send an email to email@example.com.