During my time at the CEC 2011 Convention & Expo, I was lucky to meet educators and researchers who are trying to find better ways to teach and serve exceptional children and their families. As I perused the many poster sessions, I was struck by the work of Lusa Lo of the University of Massachusetts, whose poster described a three-year parent community project between schools and immigrant families of children with disabilities. The demographic of our school here in Anchorage is one made up of immigrant, bilingual, and ethnically diverse families.
In my brief career, East High School has tried to improve its connection with students’ parents, families, and community. This year, a contingency of the special education department hosted two “Transition Nights” with the goal of connecting more students with disabilities to state and local services. Throughout the experience, I and my peers learned a few things about connecting with parents and hosting a “Transition Night” that I’d like to share with Reality 101 readers.
Schedule One Each Semester — Gather those involved and hammer out dates that everyone will stick to. As the school year progresses, events that aren’t prioritized early on fall off the radar. The next thing you know, what seemed like a solid plan in August becomes a good idea for next year by February. Committing to dates early builds early momentum and allows time for discussing and distributing the work.
Invite Local Experts — Every LEA works with agencies that coordinate information, applications, and services for individuals with disabilities. Many communities also have other support groups or legal agencies whose sole goal is to advocate for those with disabilities. Invite a representative from each to speak briefly about your state’s waiver process.
Maximize Face-Time with Families — The school schedule is busy as it is. Economize time by offering your Transition Night as a part of parent conferences, the school open-house, or a similar existing event. If families are already in the building, they’re more likely to drop in for another half-hour or so…especially if you provide refreshments. (Beg your administrators for a 100-dollar stipend or ask a local restaurant to cater for a discounted rate.)
Enhance Your Ability to be Understood — If your school has the resources, provide bilingual interpreters to decrease the communication gap. Use visuals in addition to pertinent literature on the subject. Giving a glimpse of the real locations/offices in your community can be a great first step in getting families to connect to them.
Facilitate Discussion Between Families — Encourage those parents who have experience with the system to share with others. If there is a particularly knowledgeable or outgoing parent or family, invite them to invite other families to the next Transition Night. Don’t assume that just because a teacher or local expert isn’t leading the discussion that nothing valuable is happening.
Follow-Up and Check-In — Do this step within a month of your first meeting with students and families. Ask if they’ve completed the waiver process or if they need help with the application. Be prepared to refer them to your local agencies and coordinators again. Whatever you do, don’t miss the opportunity to impress how important it is that their child receives the services for which they may be eligible!
When I visited Lo’s poster session, “How Community Involvement Can Improve Home-School Partnerships,” I was impressed by the commitment of the professionals who had planned the school-community partnerships, carried out their activities, and monitored their effects. I was struck by the leader’s comment that “Many of these families realize that accessing services is important and want to do it, but they may not have the information, support, or linguistic skills to go through with the process.”
During both East High School events, our staff was particularly impressed when we saw parents talking in English, Hmong, and Korean to one another about their experiences. As teachers, we don’t always have the skill sets to communicate most effectively to the families we teach, but we can offer the positive environment, tools, and professional and social supports that help bring the strength of community inside the school and vice-versa.
I’d love to read your comments about strategies you have used to connect families to this important aspect of transition.