The Lakota Board of Education hosted a Community Conversation on Nov. 8 for parents and staff to discuss special education in the district. Now in its 12th year, the Community Conversation program is an opportunity for district leaders to gather input and feedback from parents, staff, students and community members on a variety of topics.
Executive Director of Special Services Andrea Longworth shared a brief presentation about the department and the differences between an individual education program (IEP) and a 504 plan. “I appreciate that our parents are engaged and willing to provide feedback to us,” said Longworth. “I encourage our families to visit our website for resources, as well as answers to frequently asked questions that we received from Lakota CARES.” CARES stands for Championing Abilities Relationships Equity and Strengths. The group is a Lakota parent support organization for families with students with disabilities.
The program’s facilitator, Kristen Rojas, then explained the Board and district’s objectives. “The goals for this evening include: having a productive and rewarding conversation; listening generously; actively supporting the discovery of common interests and concerns; and collecting authentic, meaningful responses to our questions from all of you.” Seated in tables of no more than six people, each small group selected one prompt pertaining to special education to discuss and then share feedback with the Board and district leaders. A summary of the large-group discussion follows.
Are there strategies & accommodations that can be implemented at classroom, school or district level to create a more inclusive & accommodating educational environment?
- Visual schedules
- Have open discussions about disabilities in the classroom
- Consistency in schools across district regarding:
- Field trips
- Reverse inclusion (typical kids come into SCC rooms)
- Students with disabilities attending the same school as other students in their neighborhoods
- All students should have specials with peers, including library
- School-wide events should be accessible for all students.
- Additional reading specialists at the early childhood schools shouldn’t come at the expense of elementary schools.
- There should be trauma informed strategies related to discipline.
- Parents should be encouraged to share success stories as well as challenges.
- There needs to be strong administrator support for intervention specialists.
- The evaluation process for IEPs needs to be improved.
- There is a disconnect between information shared from general education and special education. It seems that one teacher will assume that the other has shared with parents when neither has.
- Intervention specialists need to be treated the same way as gen ed teachers
- Mandatory training for staff, including teachers (both classroom and specials), aides and transportation.
- More teachers with disabilities
Are there specific concerns or barriers that make it challenging for you to attend school meetings or events? How can these be addressed?
- There are language barriers for families of English language learners.
- Options for Zoom meetings would help when parents can’t attend in person.
- Specialized and trained after school care programs are difficult to find.
- Make it standard to have accommodations like sensory-friendly areas at school events like book fairs, the walkathon and trunk or treat.
- Office staff in some schools are not always welcoming to parents and volunteers and may not be trained in how best to handle students with disabilities.
- Increase Lakota’s community partners for special education programs.
- Give parents the option to sign a permission slip to allow conversations about a student’s disability to take place in the classroom. This will improve a student’s sense of belonging and inclusion.
- Are there grants to train more employees?
- Offer more after hour times to meet with teachers.
- Are there training opportunities for volunteers?
How can parents and guardians (and students) be actively involved in IEP and 504 decision making?
- Every person at the table, including the parent, is an expert. When you have a whole new team at the table, staff need to acknowledge that the parents are also experts.
- Lakota needs to partner with the parents and students. Touch base, ask if parents have questions and include student feedback during the process.
- Consider that the parent may also have data at home that they can share.
- If an IEP or evaluation team report (ETR) draft is required, provide it to parents in a timely manner so the parents have time to review before the meeting. Any info that can be shared ahead of time is appreciated.
- Inclusion of twice exceptional children and the specific needs in the process and identifying areas of gaps.
- Parents need to know when and how to contact the district to schedule a meeting.
- Do not use educational jargon because this makes it difficult for parents to fully understand. If goals must be written in educational language, also include “layman’s terms” for future reference.
- Acknowledge that parents are experts on their kids and really work to include their suggestions, requests and comments into consideration - even if it’s just to try.
- Please do not use Zoom for IEP meetings except when absolutely necessary. They are much more effective when everyone is in person.
- Request that parents take the time to review materials and prepare comments and questions ahead of time.
- The district should be required to make sure that parents know what is expected of them during meetings. For example, not just the meeting time, but also what specific paperwork needs to be completed.
- Parents need to understand that they can bring an advocate and other materials into the IEP process.
- Lakota could provide resources for parents regarding community support concerning IEPs and 504s.
- Have more parent mentors and advocates to truly guide the parents and help them get what the child actually needs. Parents need to be aware of what to say and do to get what their child needs.
- There is a difference between “advocate” and “mentor.” An advocate is an individual hired by the family to act on their behalf. A parent mentor works for the school district and supports parents with the special education process.
- The classroom teachers and intervention specialists should be consulted regarding individual student needs because they are with them every day.
- Can parents create a mentoring program for new parents to the system working with parents who have been around for a while?
- This is one of the purposes of CARES.
- Use specific words when discussing a child’s needs. For example, don’t say “reading problem” when it should really be “dyslexia.”
- Increase the communication between the intervention specialists and parents. For example, daily or weekly updates as well as pictures. This should be standard operating procedures because it is difficult to be a part of the decision-making process if you don’t know what’s going on.
- Training for parents who are new to the IEP or 504 process would be very helpful. This could include clarifying important and hard-to-understand concepts like when IEP evaluations or evaluation team reports (ETR) will occur.
- Consistency in when and how parents can communicate with instructional aides.
- For students in specialized classrooms, better communication about transitioning to new schools. The students will not only change buildings, but also teachers and peers. This will change their routines and schedules which will be an adjustment for them. Right now, parents have no input into this decision.
- Help parents clearly understand when and how a student’s IEP works into their school day.
What strategies or practices do you believe would make it easier for parents to get involved in their child’s education without feeling overwhelmed?
- The ability to network with others who have been through the special education process.
- The ability to access Seesaw and other similar apps that are used in the classroom so parents can see the work their child is doing.
- When teachers use social media to share about what is happening in the classroom, it gives parents the opportunity to see their child participating.
- Brief emails from teachers when needed, as well as a weekly newsletter update to keep parents informed about what students are working on.
- Publishing a checklist that parents could reference when they have questions. For example, “Where do I start” when a family is new to special education at Lakota.
- More promotion of Lakota CARES so parents know the group is a resource for them.
- Create a partnership between parents and the district when determining what a child needs.
Interim Superintendent Elizabeth Lolli thanked everyone in attendance, sharing that she and district leaders, including Longworth, will review the feedback and may plan a follow-up meeting later in the school year. “I appreciate the honest conversation that took place tonight. We want to do our best for every student.”
- community conversations
- special education