On Thursday May 17th, a hundred parents gathered in San Jose to attend the “Parent Empowerment Forum on Special Education,” co-hosted by Innovate Public Schools and Parents Helping Parents (PHP).

PHP is a leading community organization in the Bay Area providing training, information and support to families who have children with special needs. Innovate parent leaders were excited to partner with PHP to share highlights from Innovate’s publication: “An Advocate’s Guide to Transforming Special Education.”  The guide gives parents an overview of what excellent special education supports look like in schools and districts across the country, and it also provides tools for parents and advocates to better understand which of those practices are currently happening in their school or district. All attendees got an advance copy of the guide, which will officially be released to the public this fall.

Allen Lebovitch and Maria Dominguez, Innovate parent leaders, co-chaired and kicked off the forum by sharing some of their personal experiences struggling to get their own students the high quality supports they needed in school and why they now are organizing with other parents to improve special education.

Co-chair Lebovitch urged the attendees to see the event as a first step in building the collective power of parents to get the changes that are needed in the special education system. PHP Executive Director Maria Daane and Innovate CEO Matt Hammer then shared a few opening comments about the new partnership between the organizations.

Parent leader Magdalena Montoya shared data that demonstrates that too few students with special needs across the nation are achieving at high levels, but that the majority of students with disabilities could be mastering grade level content with the right supports.

Parent leader Eva Sanchez-Nuñez shared the struggles she has had advocating for her five children with special needs, but also the hope she has for what is possible for them. She shared her story of visiting one of the schools highlighted in the guide, a San Francisco public school called Lafayette Elementary, that is demonstrating what excellence looks like for students with special needs.

“I was impressed that the special education professional development was not just limited to special education teachers but offered to all mainstream general education teachers,” Sanchez-Nuñez  shared. “All of their teachers are able to increase their knowledge and skill to teach students like my children. That’s what we need here in the local San Jose Unified School District. That’s what we need in all school systems.”

Innovate’s Director of Research and Policy, Thomas Maffai, presented an overview of the guide. He explained that each of the eight chapters of the guide highlights a critical aspect of a high performing special education system. He also walked attendees through the “What to Ask” and “What to Look For” sections of the guide, which help parents and advocates determine how well their school, district, or CMO is serving the needs of students with disabilities.  

Throughout the evening, parents and community members were invited to share some of their experiences and reflections with their fellow attendees. At the end of the evening, attendees pledged to advocate for their own child and all children in order to transform the special education system together.