After years of near-dormancy, the Island Parents Advisory Council is back in action as of Thursday night, when parents of children with special needs gathered to reorganize the official body.
Over 20 parents gathered at the YMCA to learn about the purpose of the Parent Advisory Council, the bylaws that govern its functioning, and a plan to get it back on its feet.
Ann Marie Cywinski, chair of the Parent Advisory Council and its only member for the past few years, told the group that parental participation has been scarce, rendering the PAC essentially inactive.
“It’s important to understand that being in a group does affect your child,” said Katherine DeVane, a parent who helped lead the meeting. “Having too small of a group is a huge problem. We need all of you for this to work.”
While many expressed interest in meeting monthly to discuss Island programs, they also described the other demands on their time, which include the task of caring and advocating for their children.
Under Massachusetts state law, school districts are required to establish a parent advisory council on special education for the purpose of advising the schools on best practices for educating children with disabilities.
According to the present bylaws, membership is open to all special needs parents and legal guardians, and one parent from each public school district will sit on the executive committee. The director of student support services serves as a non-voting member of the executive committee.
The purpose of the PAC is not explicitly to advocate on behalf of an individual child, explained Phil Campbell, director of student support services.
“In general, PAC’s are perceived as looking at systemic issues,” he said. “Most PAC’s function more like a policy group, and participate with the district in evaluating programs.”
But some parents seemed inclined to broaden that definition.
“We are also happy to think about individual needs,” said Ms. DeVane said. “That’s what’s drawn us all here.”
There are currently 450 children in the public school districts who have individualized education programs (IEP). But communication between these parents remains scarce. In some cases, parents said the confidentiality that accompanies special education programming makes it hard to identify each other.
Following the meeting, parents began networking with each other and the educators present.
Ms. Cywinski spoke of creating a lending library of child development literature, and forming a system wherein parents would volunteer to support each other at IEP meetings. IPAC would host workshops for parents, and help spread information about services available to families.
Kim Leaird, a new parent who organized the meeting, told the group that collaboration will help each parent feel less alone in their quest for better supports for their children.
“It is so gratifying to see everyone here,” she said.
Already on Thursday, the parents had begun voicing their concerns. Many called for more support during the transitions between preschool and kindergarten, middle and high school, and, perhaps most challenging, high school and adulthood.
They also discussed the treatment of their community in the press.
“It’s hard for us as parents of children with special needs to see the [coverage of rising special education costs] in the paper, and for them not to understand what our needs are or where that money is going,” Ms. DeVane said.
The organizers said they hoped the parental interest would stay at such a high level, but feared it would taper off, as it has in the past.
“At this point, it’s all about promoting awareness that it exists,” Ms. Cywinski said.