Jill Hellman, PTA Comrades Committee Chair, Clover Hill Elementary School, Midlothian, VA
Receiving news that your child qualifies for special education services can be a lonely and overwhelming experience. At first, there is relief that your child will receive the support that he or she needs. Then there is apprehension and sadness that he or she now has a label. It can be challenging at first for parents who receive this news to find and access the emotional support and community resources they need to support their children.
Clover Hill Elementary School PTA, which embraces inclusive practices in education, identified a need for establishing a committee focused on the needs of students with disabilities. In the four years since the committee –the Comrades–was established, it has become a strong parent-teacher partnership that strives to provide access to resources to parents and improve two-way communication between families and school.
To build awareness and recruit new members, the Comrades send home flyers in student backpacks at the start of every school year, maintain a web page with community resources, and have initiated an annual community yard sale to raise funds for the teachers on the Exceptional Education team. With funds raised through the first community yard sale and support of local vendors and charitable donations from many in the community, the Comrades purchased iPads for every exceptional education teacher, which greatly improved students’ and teachers’ access to assistive technology in the classroom.
The Comrades also raise awareness through the regular confidential dissemination of emails drafted by the chairperson and forwarded as a blind copy by a teacher on the exceptional education team to parents and guardians of students receiving special education services. In this way, the Comrades regularly communicate information about upcoming monthly meetings, fundraisers, and local events and resources for children with disabilities and their families.
In an effort to encourage and promote inclusive educational practices at Clover Hill, the Comrades facilitate a performance during Inclusive Schools Week – a national program to promote inclusion in schools. Performances are selected based upon themes related to the Inclusive Schools Week mission. In addition to these performances, the Comrades decorate bulletin boards for Inclusive Schools Week that encourage students to celebrate diversity and value the unique qualities in every individual. The above image shows the bulletin board decorated by members of the Comrades committee for Inclusive Schools Week 2014 with the theme “Every snowflake is unique just like you.”
Through the Comrades committee, parents have developed friendships and found comfort in knowing they are not alone in the often emotional but rewarding process of learning to advocate for their children. In the process, they are also building a stronger community and enhancing resources for students and teachers.
Establishing special education committees within PTA organizations is necessary and important to improving the educational experience for all students. Every voice counts and should be heard. I encourage PTAs across the country to establish a committee dedicated to giving a voice to students with disabilities and those who advocate for them to ensure that everyone is heard.
Jill is a mother of three children and has been an active member on her local PTA for several years. She is a founding member of the Comrades, a committee dedicated to supporting special education services at Clover Hill Elementary School in Midlothian, VA.