Thursday, April 23, 2009

A Conversation with Advocates, Attorneys, and a school district board member

This morning, Elizabeth and I attended a breakfast and tour at Aviva High School, a non-public school here in the LA area. As part of the morning's activities, Aviva had invited Marlene Cantor, LAUSD board member, to be a guest speaker. The audience included advocates and attorneys who represent special needs kids. I can't speak for everyone, but I found Marlene's comments to be very insightful. The conversation focused on issues related to the relationship between parents and school districts. While this is a big, important conversation beyond the scope of an hour-long talk, I appreicated hearing Marlene's thoughts on these issues, which were exactly on point to what we all need to be doing to take steps in the right direction towards collaboration. So, I wanted to briefly summarize in our blog:

1) Bring the focus of the conversation back to the child! Too often we focus on the actions of the other side, how rights have been violated, or (on the part of the district) what has to be done to meet technical compliance. This isn't what it is about. The conversations related to special education programs have to be focused on the kid, not on adult feelings and issues. What Marlene said about this that I found particularly insightful was that we all have to remember to take responsibility for how we engage in these conversations, and we as adults need to focus not on our own feelings or opinions, but on the needs of the child and that child's best interest.

2) Come to the table with compassion and understanding! Parents of kids with disabilities obviously already have a lot to deal with emotionally. As Marlene put it, the last thing they need is to come to the school looking for help and get stuck in some "compliance driven process" rather than being able to focus on helping their child. Teachers and administrators need to remember this, and they need to approach conversations with parents with true compassion for what those parents are experiencing.

3) Relationships are the key! Marlene talked to us about the importance of starting out by building a relationship. This applies to parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and attorneys, to people on both sides of the issue. We all need to work on building relationships when possible, so that we can be collaborative when the situation calls for it, and effective in our advocacy when we need to be more zealous.

Overall, I enjoyed hearing a presentation from a very balanced viewpoint on the issue of special education. I think we can all recognize, no matter what "side" of this we are on, that the community as a whole, including advocates, attorneys and folks on the school district side, could be doing a lot better in terms of collaborating to meet the needs of these students.

These discussions were certainly thought-provoking to all of us there. You can look forward to future blog topics related to the issues of relationships between parents and school districts, as we believe there is a lot to discuss on that subject!

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