As a special education advocate, much – if not most — of my work is on behalf of individual students with disabilities and their families. But when I’m not working with a particular student, I often am engaged in advocacy efforts at the system level. I enjoy collaboration with other parents and advocates, and together, we often can make a difference. This system-level advocacy is a different beast altogether from individual advocacy, but it’s a critical component to education reform for students with disabilities.
This summer our advocacy community has had multiple opportunities to work together to raise awareness around issues impacting our students. When our district, at the end of the school year, shockingly terminated more than 25 percent of the paraprofessionals assigned to work with and support students with disabilities, we organized a press conference to create a forum where our voices could be heard. The conference was well attended, both by parents and stakeholders, as well as by the media. The coverage was extensive, and for 24 hours, our faces and our concerns were front and center in Nashville newspapers and on the 6 o’clock news. Our efforts did not result in a reversal of the decision, but our voices were heard and the needs of the students we represent were discussed publicly. We are still disappointed in the district’s decision and concerned with what this will mean for our students during the upcoming school year, but we consider the press conference a success in that it raised awareness regarding the unique needs of students with disabilities.
This week a small group of parents (comprised mainly of the same parents who organized the press conference) is hosting an exceptional education forum for candidates for our upcoming school board election. Most of the candidates plan to attend, and we believe that this will be an opportunity for voters and families to hear the view of the candidates regarding students with disabilities. Again, we will be getting the message out to these candidates and to the public that we are passionate about our kid’s needs, and that we can mobilize our troops when necessary. Through this process, we hope those who are elected will gain a respect for our community that will impact decisions they make while serving on our school board.
Nashville is a big city, and our school district serves nearly 9,500 students with disabilities. Yet, both of the events described above were planned, organized and executed by essentially the small group of committed and passionate parents. Despite our efforts to cast a wide net and involve other parents and advocates in the process, the lion’s share of the work for both of these events has ended up in the hands of the same five to six folks. This is not a complaint but rather an acknowledgement that change often happens because of small groups of people who believe in a cause and who are not afraid to act upon those beliefs.
This truth was summed up beautifully by Margaret Mead in my favorite quote:
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Here’s hoping that other small groups of thoughtful, committed citizens are working in their cities and towns to create meaningful and lasting change for their students with disabilities.