Eleven months after being told my son’s special education class was being phased out and fighting each day to prevent it, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools made a triumphant announcement that his class at Randolph Middle School (RMS) would stay as one of five magnet choices for students in Extensions, the new name for the CMS special education program.
When I heard our work had paid off, I cried. It was as much joy, as it was relief. For parents like us, every single day is a battle to get therapy, medicine, education and accessible options. It’s not about winning; it’s about providing our child with what they need. It took the advocacy efforts of many people to change the course of the original decision.
Here’s what I learned about how to make actual change:
Influence doesn’t always come with age and power.
Support came from everywhere – grandparents, parents, teachers, teachers’ assistants, strangers, and friends. People running for school board shared the information and offered advice that we followed.
The most impactful support came from eight to 10 RMS students. They were the eighth-grade peer buddies to the students in the special education classes. These 13-year olds jumped in by creating an Instagram account, @keeprandolphSAC (SAC was the former name of the special education program), writing heartfelt letters to the school board members, speaking in front of the Board of Education, and talking to TV reporters. They helped create EquALLity Task Force, the group we formed to brand the cause. They designed a logo and brought life to our advocacy efforts.
Be in it for the long haul.
Our continued persistence and resolve to stay front and center led to the positive result. There were many times that the school system thought we would go away, but we did not relent.
The pace was back-breaking at times, but luckily once people understood that changes were being made to their child’s education, they wanted to help. As we dug deeper, we also realized the changes would affect not just RMS, but the special education classes across the county – this helped recruit more families.
Parents volunteered in their areas of expertise. A Spanish-speaking mom helped reach out to the Spanish-speaking families, a tech savvy dad created a video, and the lawyers in the group wrote out formal complaints. We pursued every avenue – federal and state complaints, local school board, and national organizations.
We used all forms of social media and TV to get our message heard. If we went silent, the cause would be over. Our strength was in our ability to keep the topic in the public’s eye.
Our message was clear: We will not give up or go away. Eventually, the right people listened.
Prepare to mend fences.
There were intense moments in several meetings. Tempers flared. Emotions were high. Once we knew our voices were being heard by senior school leaders who could change the direction of the decision, we had to repair relationships with the people we were fighting. It was awkward at first, but it had to be done if we wanted to move forward.
Parents and the Exceptional Children’s department worked together to form a new parent advisory board called Exceptional Children’s Advisory Council (EPAC). Several parents attended meetings to help determine what magnet options would best serve students in the special education program. It was important for everyone to see one another in a different setting, working together for the greater cause — students with special needs.
In June, I met with the newly hired assistant superintendent for the Exceptional Children’s department, Dr. Ann Stalnaker. She listened and acted on what she learned from our group. She created ways for the department to communicate with parents through a blog, round table discussions, email, and flyers. Stalnaker is connecting parents to one another and seeking ways for our students to achieve academic excellence.
Even now the advocacy doesn’t end. It’s a job we do every day.
Photo: Courtesy of Mabry Sumner, Lisa Lose