Last September, five mothers of students with special needs met at the Jefferson Township Library to learn about SPAN, a parent advocacy network in New Jersey. SPAN works heavily in areas around Camden, Trenton, and Newark, but the organization has been recently getting involved with the northwestern part of the state as well.
Working with the department of special services at Jefferson Township public schools, SPAN came to the town to help create a Special Education Parent Advisory Group, or SEPAG. Under New Jersey administrative code, every district in the state is supposed to have a SEPAG or another form of a parent advisory group.
That same month, those five mothers formed Jefferson’s SEPAG. The group spent last school year making its presence known on social media and at board of education meetings and spreading information to help parents understand IEPs and basic rights for students with special needs. At its last in-person meeting before the pandemic, the group was looking into how to change the HIB policy to better protect students with special needs from harassment and bullying.
With the school district reopening next month, SEPAG has a whole new set of challenges. Although changes to the HIB policy are still on the group’s list of goals for the upcoming school year, the more immediate task is to act as a facilitator between the school district’s department of special services and parents.
In April, SEPAG sent out a survey on Facebook to get feedback about the virtual setting’s impact on students with special needs. While some feedback was positive and used to elevate those certain areas of success, many parents had negative experiences that the group sent to the department to use for improvements to this school year’s reopening plan. The group also pushed to get one of its members onto the district’s reopening committee for academics.
When the school district released its reopening plan at the end of July, SEPAG worked to get answers to the many unaddressed concerns of students with special needs. Diane Perez, SEPAG’s chairwoman, said that the plan was written for the common student, but it left a lot of uncertainty for students with special needs. The group communicated with parents and the director at the department of special services to work toward a better understanding of what the school reopening plan would look like for students with special needs, both in-person and virtually.
The rest of SEPAG’s executive board, including co-chairs Deeanne Baker, Tracy Acosta, Kimberly Heiner, Deirdre Bassin and the group’s secretary Michele Katz, will continue to work in collaboration with parents and the school district to improve the education experience for students with special needs as the reopening plan unfolds.
To get involved with this work, residents can join SEPAG at its monthly meetings during the school year and follow SEPAG on Facebook. The group is open to all residents interested in supporting children with special needs, not just for parents with students with special needs. In the past, aides have come to previous meetings to learn how to improve their quality of support. Anyone with questions can message the group on Facebook or send an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.