Three months ago, I had never heard of Special Education PTAs, but I clearly remember the day that I did. It was June 15, 2018, and I was in a meeting for Missouri Disability Empowerment, when one person asked if we had heard of a Special Education PTA (SEPTA). I perked up, and questioned further. As I learned about what SEPTAs in other states do, I felt hope at the possibility of finding other parents that often feel isolated and are embarking on a journey that only another parent of a special needs child can understand.
Being a mom of three children, two of whom have special needs, I have often struggled with feeling isolated because many things that are taken for granted by most families can be so difficult, such as going to a grocery store, having a meal at a restaurant, or going to the park. In addition, the relationship between parent and school has a different aspect when IEPs and 504s are involved. Special needs parents and teachers become members of an entire world of evaluations, meetings, therapies, and mountain of special education acronyms, which the majority of teachers and parents do not experience.
I still remember my very first Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meeting for my son, which took place eleven years ago. Everyone was very friendly and helpful in guiding us through this process; however, I felt like they were speaking a foreign language. There were numerous acronyms, forms, and decisions being made that I truly knew nothing about. After that meeting, I spent hours researching and becoming educated on this process, so I was more prepared to be involved at the next IEP meeting.
There are many parents of special needs kids at different stages of the special education process in a school district who can be a great benefit to each other. There is no reason that every parent new to special education, or at a transition point, needs to start from scratch. There should be a resource for parents and teachers to come together to guide and support each other through the process, which is where the Special Education PTA can be invaluable.
School specific PTAs do an amazing job of supporting the school and children through various methods such as field trips, classroom supplies, classroom parties, fun fairs, etc. Oftentimes, the special education areas are overlooked, or are not a priority, as these students are typically a small percentage of the total school population. Even the events that are billed as being for the entire school are often overwhelming to many special needs children, so these events are avoided, or if attempted to attend might end with a negative experience or meltdown. When a school specific PTA and Special Education PTA work together, amazing opportunities and experiences for all children can happen.
The experience of creating a Special Education Parent Teacher Association has been a wonderful and exciting experience, thanks to the help of Mary Flatt and other members of the Missouri PTA. There is a fair amount of administrative work on my end; however, the Missouri PTA’s packet walked me through the steps, and Mary spent many afternoons giving me guidance on how to start. In our area, we are also very lucky to have a Columbia Council PTA, which has also been very helpful and supportive. The trainings I have attended have been very informative and respectful of our time. Rosa Parks, the Columbia Council PTA president, also has a wealth of knowledge and much needed advice about getting started.
I was very nervous when the moment of truth arrived – the organizational meeting. To become an official PTA, ten people need to attend and become charter members, but I was thrilled that over thirty people attended. After two months of mainly word-of-mouth and social media advertising, the Columbia SEPTA has grown to fifty-one members.
We have so many ideas that we want to accomplish, resources to share, and support to give to anyone with an interest in special needs. People within the group are stepping forward and taking on roles that help SEPTA grow. Erin Keith, Communications Chair, has been invaluable in setting up a website with online memberships, preparing flyers, and coordinating Facebook and Twitter communications with our members. These items are so important in this day and age. The main challenge right now is being realistic about what we can accomplish in the first year, and what we need to take longer to plan as well as working to develop a great relationship with the school.
The Columbia SEPTA, for me, was truly a ray of light that I needed. The journey has been fun and filled with ups and downs. The mom doubt crept in, but the other parents are there to offer support and offer guidance. It is so refreshing to have plans for events that include our kids, and take their needs into account. This would not have been possible without the support of Missouri PTA.