How to Grow Your SEPAC
A successful SEPAC is the best publicity – people like to belong to active groups with a defined purpose.
Who Can Be a SEPAC Member?
MA law creating SEPACs states that “membership shall be offered to all parents of children with disabilities and other interested parties.” Everyone is welcome. Since the school district cannot provide a list of the names of families with children on an IEP or 504 plan because of privacy protections in the law, the SEPAC will need to do lots of ground work to get the word out. A SEPAC can start collecting names and contact information from attendees at their meetings to form a contact list.
How to Recruit New Members
Membership flyers can be sent by mail from the school or posted on district websites and school bulletin boards. Local newspaper, cable TV and online newsletters can help advertise meetings. SEPACs should have informational tables at school events and open houses. The SEPAC can ask the school district to include their brochure in a regular special education mailing (i.e., IEP meeting invitations), hand out the SEPAC informational brochure at every IEP meeting, or ask the school district to mail the SEPAC brochure to all special needs families at least once per year. Ask current SEPAC members to bring a friend or parent from their child’s class to the next meeting. Form a support group which meets at different times to meet parents’ schedules.
The DESE Guidance for Special Education Parent Advisory Councils suggests “Possible Practices to Encourage Turnout of Parents”:
- Provide new parents, whenever appropriate, with a “Welcome Packet” that includes introductory information, including a list of good resources.
- Partner with the district preschool coordinator to organize a “coffee” for all parents of preschool children in the district, to provide them with information about the SEPAC and with introductory information about special education in general.
- Establish subcommittees of the SEPAC, when appropriate, to encourage parents to address specific concerns they’ve identified as priorities. This not only could increase efficiency, but could also help individual parents to focus on areas of greatest interest to them.
- Produce a “Parent Information Brochure” in collaboration with the district that includes contact information and resources relating to special education that are useful to parents. Consider including information on recreation, advocacy, and camps for students with disabilities.
Recruit SEPAC volunteers from parents who already attend meetings or have children in the public schools. When recruiting volunteers, ask them what they are interested in doing, not what jobs are available. For current SEPAC members you can create a list of things that need to be done (break down tasks into manageable size) and ask parents at meetings if they can help out. If a parent is already involved in their child’s school or is on the PTA, PTO or School Council, ask them to represent the SEPAC at those meetings. Often the most important thing a volunteer can do is keep the SEPAC abreast of issues going on in the district that effect children with special needs. A SEPAC will become better known and respected if it is “plugged into” the infrastructure of the school district. If the SEPAC wants to play a role in the district, the SEPAC officers, volunteers, and members should take the initiative to increase chances for SEPAC representation on school-wide matters. Some jobs may require regular attendance at SEPAC meetings, but some don’t, so have opportunities for volunteers to help in any way they can:
•Help the SEPAC determine goals for each school year
•Write and conduct parent surveys
•Identify gaps in programming needs (don’t just state the problem, help brainstorm and provide some possible solutions too)
•Arrange for meeting dates and locations
•Locate speakers for workshops
•Coordinate publicity in local newspapers
•Identify funding sources or grants to support SEPAC speakers, workshops, etc.
•Mentor a parent with a child whose diagnosis is similar to your child’s diagnosis
•Create and Maintain a SEPAC Library
•Run a Support Group
•Bring coffee to a meeting
•Create and maintain a Website, Yahoo Group, Facebook Page, etc.
The SEPAC is a district-wide organization, so getting information from all of the schools is difficult. A SEPAC member can serve as a volunteer liaison to their child’s school to:
- Create SEPAC presence at school open houses, orientation day, and school events,
- Arrange to publicize SEPAC information in school newsletters,
- Post SEPAC event flyers and brochures in the school lobby or office,
- Connect with school’s PTA, PTO and School Council,
- Inform SEPAC Officers of any school events (fairs, programs, etc.) that would be of interest to the SEPAC, or
- Inform SEPAC Officers about any school issues and changes in special education programming or staff.
A SEPAC Volunteer Liaison can attend School Committee meetings and inform SEPAC Officers about any issues that may be important for the SEPAC to address or be aware of. A SEPAC Volunteer Liaison can attend Town Government meetings and inform SEPAC Chairpersons about any issues that may affect special education within the community.
One way to help individual parents focus on areas of greatest concern to them is to establish a SEPAC subcommittee. Subcommittees should have a stated purpose, time of duration and structure with leadership roles clearly outlined. The subcommittee should present their findings to the SEPAC in a formal manner to document and record their work. Subcommittees must follow Open Meeting law rules.
Building Intercultural Communities
Some districts have established non-English speaking support groups to reach out and involve parents who do not speak English. Information from these families will impact the work of the SEPAC and the advice it is able to give to the district. SEPAC officers should learn about the demographics of their community and look for partners or cultural brokers to assist them in reaching out to families.
Often at meetings, parents are interested in sharing their personal stories, concerns and feelings with other parents, especially about their experiences in trying to get the best possible special education program in place for their child. One option to give them an avenue for their voice and to share concerns is to establish a group that meets separately from the SEPAC – a “Parent Support Group”. That way, interested parents can have their needs met, while the SEPAC can remain focused at their meetings on their main role as adviser to the district on matters that pertain to special education. Parents attending these support group meetings can share information, resources and provide direct support one-on-one. As these meetings are outside of the SEPAC, they do not have to comply with the state Open Meeting and Public Records Laws. For a parent who feels uncomfortable at a public meeting, these small groups are the right fit.
A Resource Library is a valuable source of help for your SEPAC members, your school district and community. One of the best locations for the library would be a dedicated section at your Public Library, although space may be a limitation. Meet with your Public Library Director to discuss your options, including maybe having a binder with lists of resources. Check out local school libraries – generally Middle or High School Libraries have more space – for a dedicated SEPAC section.
Many SEPACs start their Resource Libraries with a book drive. Ask parents to donate books and materials that can be shared with the community. Put up posters around town asking for donations – this will also help give the SEPAC a public face. If your community has an Education Foundation, apply for a grant. Look for opportunities!