Newsline Volume 33, Number 4

Making a Difference in A Student's Life:
One SESP's Journey

By Emily Gaudette, Recruitment, Training and Support Center (RTSC)

Curtis Hartman has been a Special Education Surrogate Parent (SESP) for eleven years. "It's continually intellectually provocative," he says. Hartman is one of hundreds working to advocate for the educational needs of children whose parents are unknown or unavailable. SESPs are trained and supported by the Recruitment, Training and Support Center (RTSC) at the Federation for Children with Special Needs.

Hartman's first student, a fifth grader, asked him, "Why do you care what I think?' Federal law requires the inclusion of a student's parent(s) or guardian(s) in the special education decision-making process, but children in state custody may not have anyone to fill that role. "This kid was angry," Hartman remembers. "His foster parents had disciplined him by making him sleep in a cage. His principal and I made a commitment to help him. Every Monday morning, his IEP team discussed how he had done the week prior." As an SESP, Hartman was not required to attend each of these meetings, as the time commitment is only 10-20 hours a year. While helping his student, however, Hartman became invested. "You can't give up on a kid," Hartman smiles. "By the time he was in ninth grade, we were discussing if he still needed to be on an IEP. He went to technical school and I attended his graduation. These are things that make you cry. This boy had been dropped off at DCF with his belongings in a trash bag, and here he was with a job and an apartment."

Hartman invites parents of children with special needs to join him in representing children in Massachusetts. "Empathy is a huge part of this. These children don't come from loving homes. They've never had someone stand up for them, and you are now on their side. Your job is to make sure their needs in the classroom are being met."

SESPs spend their 10-20 hours a year telling the child's story to administrators and educators, reviewing and signing IEPs and attending quarterly meetings. They receive report cards and progress reports as any parent would. Hartman adds, "It's not your job to solve the child's problems. It's your job to make sure they get their free and appropriate education. Their need is so desperate that even the smallest amount of help has an immense effect."

If you have an interest in improving the lives of children with special needs, consider becoming a Special Education Surrogate Parent in your area. "The process is so interesting." Hartman says. "I could never learn all there is to learn. It keeps my mind agile."

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To become an SESP, contact the RTSC at rtsc@fcsn.org, call us with questions at (617) 399-8342, or check out our website at www.fcsn.org/rtsc. Ask yourself as Curtis Hartman does, "Who's the kid I'm going to see graduate from high school? Who's the next child I'm able to help, and how can I help them?"
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