Engagement of parents with SWD still a challenge

Engagement of parents with SWD still a challenge

(Calif.) School administrators should be careful to fully engage parents of students with disabilities and not address the process as simply a compliance function, officials told a select committee meeting on children with special needs Monday.

Although the Senate hearing was largely focused on improving community engagement in legislative policymaking, much of the expert testimony echoed sentiments expressed during the development of California’s Local Control Accountability Plans, which requires that schools make concerted efforts to bring families into decision-making.

Namely, schools must seek input from parents and community members, not just check a box saying that a school board meeting was held. Families and advocates who spoke at the hearing expressed concern that perspectives of parents of children with disabilities were often neglected in policymaking conversations.

“By sitting on committees, we have a seat at the table, but are our voices really being heard?” asked Kausha King, a parent of a child with a disability as well as a parent health liaison at the Care Parent Network in Contra Costa County. “Parents don’t want to sit on the sideline complaining–we want to be involved.”

More than 600,000 students in California have disabilities that require some level of additional services. These students often face worse educational outcomes than their peers. About 60 percent of students with disabilities, for instance, graduate from high school throughout the state, compared to an 80 percent graduation rate for students without disabilities, according to the California Department of Education.

Students with disabilities are also are suspended or expelled at disproportionate rates and many wind up in the juvenile justice system, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

The California Statewide Special Education Task Force recommended in a 2015 report that clear and specific guidelines and reinforcements should be developed in each district for teacher-parent-school collaboration. Researchers noted that in successful schools, families received frequent reports on their child and how their needs were being addressed, and parents were often asked to work with educators to construct useful strategies for home and school.

Still, some at the hearing explained that while it is important to include parents in policy discussions, it is equally as important to ensure that they have a grasp of what it happening. Burying the key points in jargon and not providing background on the issue at hand, some said, was a common mistake among policymakers.

“There are challenges surrounding family engagement,” said Jennifer Kent, director of the California Department of Healthcare Services. “Be aware of who is on your committee at all times and making sure that you try to not necessarily lower the conversation, but make sure your time and information is afforded to every participant in a meaningful way.”

According to Kent, it can be overwhelming for a parent to be brought into an advisory group without being brought up to speed, or given as much material as possible beforehand, and many end up completely lost.

In addition to the requirement that schools demonstrate in their LCAPs how they will increase family engagement, others at the hearing explained that in discussions regarding special needs children, parents are useful in providing a wealth of knowledge based on experience.

“The family is usually the constant in a child’s life, while service systems and personnel often fluctuate,” said Ted Lempert, president of Children Now. “Families have unique insight and expertise on their child’s special needs, which is why their perspective is vital to policy-making.”