Particular Training Mother or father Council hopes to widen sense of ‘belonging’ at District 65
“Well, I understand he has Down syndrome,” said one young boy as he approached Kelly Baldrate and her son Sean in a lakeside playground. Baldrate confirmed his statement, and the boy embroiled Sean in a conversation about pets and movies. The boy revealed that he had a school friend who had Down syndrome and was thus empowered to contact Sean.
At the District 65 board meeting on August 23, Baldrate shared the story, noting that it was Sean’s first such inclusion experience – and unfortunately one that has not been repeated in the four years since.
A new district-wide group, the Special Education Parents’ Council (SEPAC), has set itself the goal of promoting a stronger connection between families with and without children, so that moments like the playground interaction that the Baldrate family cherishes are no longer uncommon.
“Once you start reaching out to people who are a little different from you in one way or another, like next time, it’s easier, isn’t it?” Said Baldrate. “There is a practice that develops, just a kind of openness and connection.”
Defining inclusion as “belonging”, Baldrate said that in her experience, “disability is sometimes an afterthought in the larger discussions we have about identity, marginalization, inclusion and equality. And SEPAC hopes to expand the circle of people who understand how our children fit into this vision. ”
Initiated by Romy Decristofaro, Assistant Superintendent of Student Services, SEPAC’s stated mission is to “facilitate partnership and collaboration between families of children with disabilities and the school district. The goals are to promote understanding and respect for children with disabilities, as well as inclusion and improved outcomes for them in school and in the wider community. In short, we strive to foster a sense of togetherness for everyone. ”
SEPAC is ready to take on a wide range of roles including networking, support, advocacy, resource sharing, communication and community building.
At the first SEPAC meeting on May 12th, Baldrate and school council member Marquise Weatherspoon were elected as co-chairs and a statute was drawn up. Unlike other school-specific support groups established in the past, SEPAC is the first district-wide group to specifically address issues faced by District 65 families. Baldrate acknowledged that difficulties in gaining traction have marred previous efforts as many families are already feeling overwhelmed.
But she is optimistic that the number will be strong because there are “18 schools in District 65. And our children sometimes have similar problems. So I hope this district-wide group can be more effective at speaking directly about policies that could be beneficial or changes that could help us together. ”
Additionally, being able to meet virtually can reduce some of the requirements associated with holding face-to-face meetings.
Marquise Weather Spoon
Weatherspoon sees SEPAC as a resource to amplify voices that may feel unheard or underserved. “There are parents who raise their concerns and they feel like they are not being heard by their children’s team or the county councils,” she said. “And we want to make sure we offer that opportunity.”
Weatherspoon said her son “went through basically every aspect of special education across the county” and is now thriving as an eighth grader. She stressed the importance of the group’s partnership with DeCristofaro, who she said is “great at listening and also helping us implement some strategies that give us some suggestions on how to navigate the special education system in District 65”.
“It’ll just open the door a little more”
Both SEPAC leaders felt the district was moving in the right direction to build the sense of belonging they would like to see. They hope to attract the wider community by providing opportunities for learning and networking.
“We want our community to be part of it, so that our children feel like they are part of the community and like they are, you know, taken into their schools with their friends,” said Weatherspoon. “And (they can) teach their friends, if they don’t know how to approach a child with a disability so they can feel comfortable, to make friends, because that definitely helps our children.”
All district families are invited to participate in the first SEPAC event “Creating Wider Circles” with two renowned experts in the field of inclusive education, Dr. Kristie Pretti-Frontczak and Dr. Julie Causton to attend. From October 5th at 7 p.m., the 90-minute program on Zoom will provide information on inclusive education and tips on how to help children accept diversity and inclusion. (A Spanish language flyer is here.)
“I think when people tune in, they’ll enjoy it and start thinking about things in new ways. And it just opens the door a little more, ”said Ms. Baldrate. For more information on SEPAC and Creating Broad Circles, please visit the district’s website.