March 4, 2010

Starting a SEAC

Our rural school district suffers from a lack of funding. We also have a peculiar problem here; our valley is so magnificant it is a very popular place to live, and with this popularity comes rising housing costs.

We have a double edged sword; a beautiful area with high housing costs, preventing skilled educators to afford to live here. Our schools lack for special needs teachers, and trained service providers.

To me, this is not an excuse for an inadequate education for our children with special needs. I have discovered I am not the only parent in our beautiful valley who feels our children deserve a better education. I am not alone in struggling for services and equality for my child. Misery loves company, as they say!

As there are no coincidences in my life, I have recently been approached, or have approached, other parents who feel the same way as I do. We have all come to the same conclusion, independently of each other; we need to fix this educational system, NOW! Again, a few of us discovered, independently of each other, there is a nationwide mechanism in place to work with school districts; it is called a SEAC, or Special Education Advisory Committee.

A SEAC is a parent run group; members include school officials responsible for special education, in our case the Assistant Superintendent of the School District, and the BOCES consultant, as well as educators and professionals. The SEAC can recommend policy; identify gaps and work to promote special education in the district. Mainly, we can be a team of people that care about Special Education; a pain in the a** of the school administration. We have banded together, enlisted the support of the school district, and are starting a SEAC.

We recently had our second meeting. The first meeting was informational, and well attended. The second meeting was organizational and also well attended. At the first meeting I was asked to provide a parent’s perspective on a SEAC, and my support. Following are my words:

Whenever I speak about my daughter and her future I get very passionate and sometimes incoherent – so rather than subject you to that -I have written down a few words.

My name is Gary Bender, I have three children, my middle daughter Alex is 16, a sophomore at Basalt High School and has Down syndrome. We moved here four years ago from IL and we love living here.

Our situation is a bit different than some other families with a child with special needs. Alex was diagnosed at birth and this enabled us to qualify for services from day one. This early diagnosis was an advantage over other special children who are not diagnosed until they hit school age and therefore do not qualify for services until the diagnosis is official. Additionally, we lived in a well funded school district. We had all the services we needed and more available to us – Alex received speech and physical therapy services beginning at the age of three weeks. I believe this early intervention has made a huge impact on her present abilities, which has been proven by many many studies related to early intervention.

I now know I was spoiled. I really never had to get involved at all with the district. Actually, they taught me how to best educate my daughter.

As I said, we love living in this Valley – it is one of the most beautiful places I can imagine raising my family. Most of us live here because we want to – we love the outdoor live style, and learn to appreciate our environment. This valley is full of hard working wonderful families; we have a richness of diversity that does not exist in a lot of places. And although we have struggled academically, I do not want to move.

We could talk about the history of Special Education in our beautiful valley – but it won’t make a difference – what will make the difference are the next steps – the future of special education that we have the unique opportunity to create. As you see in this room we have collaboration, our School administrators, our local BOCES representative and a format of successful partnership that is working across Colorado – the SEAC. We also have our strongest resource here tonight – our families. To me, this means we all care – so I think we need to harness our strength, collaborate and create an environment where our children can succeed.

So why am I here in support of a SEAC? Why do I believe a SEAC will make a positive impact on the education of my daughter and every other child with special needs in our school district? The simple answer is because it has to…we cannot risk our children’s future by compromising their education and the services they will need to become successful and contributing adults. The less simple answer is because we can. As evident by the people in this room – we are at a crossroads in our special education system in the Roaring Fork Valley–and as parents we need to get involved.

Some of us might be doubtful thinking we hear too much about budget cuts, lack of resources and inability to hire qualified educators – due to the cost of living in our valley. Certainly these are obstacles – but I believe if we act in a partnership and support each other we can create an environment where we look at the whole picture, the whole system, from kindergarten through transition. Listening to each other we can set the processes and procedures in place that deliver cohesive and worthwhile services to all our kids. To me, this begins with the identification of children that should receive services to the teenagers who qualify for transition services and will not have to leave the public school system until they turn 21.

So – I believe that we can do this – I believe we have the collective knowledge, passion and will to create a SEAC that will make a positive difference in my life, your life and the lives of all of our children. That is my commitment to my daughter – she will have a bright and promising future, just as she deserves.

I believe cooperation is the key to success for all of our kids. We can work with the school district, as opposed to combating the system, for success for our children. I am committed to this philosophy until I am beaten to the ground, bleeding, overpowered  and conquered.

Maybe I am crazy, way too optimistic, or just naive, but I stand by my motto – hope for the best and adapt as needed!

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