Parents hope to bring stability to new Special Ed Advisory Council

A group of local parents has organized to re-form a Special Education Advisory Council in the Watertown-Mayer School District this year, and are hoping the group gains more traction the second time around.

The district had a similar group in the past, but it fizzled out several years ago for various reasons. Many of the parents eventually stopped showing up for meetings, but organizers say they never felt they had the school’s full support at that time, which was a big reason for the waning interest among parents.

“One of the things Doty (Mosford) and I talked about before we got it set up this time is that we have to be able to get traction,” said Juli Bagge, who founded the group with Mosford. “We have to be able to go in there with a purpose, because we didn’t really have a purpose before. We just met. This time we have a mission statement, there are bylawas, we have subcommittees. I think hopefully this time it will have more sustainability.”

Now, with a group of parents eager to bring it back, the hope is that the SEAC provides a network and resources for families with students that receive special education services. While Mosford said she didn’t feel the group had the school’s full support in the past, she said it also essential that parents realize the importance of their role, and are willing to make a continued commitment.

Special education director Mike Piersak, in his first year with the district, said he was approached by parents Bagge and Mosford over the summer about bringing back and advisory council, and things took off from there.

“They came to me and said we need to breathe new life into an advisory council,” Piersak said, and that’s to try to create a support network for families.”

It actually is mandated by both state and federal law that school districts maintain such parent advisory councils in special education. Those requirements are based on research that shows that children, particularly in special education, perform better when parents are actively involved. Meeting those requirements was obviously important in bringing back the Advisory Council, Piersak said, but for a district that has a higher-than-average percentage of special education students — there are roughly 260 in the district — having an advisory board like this one can be an important resource for families.

“Number one this meets the requirement, but the other idea is that this hopefully increases parent involvement and supports families whose child might be in special education,” he said.

In addition to being a network for area families, the key function of the advisory council is to advise and make recommendations to the Watertown-Mayer School Board on decisions and policies affecting or relating to special education. The Watertown-Mayer school district has roughly 1,700 students, meaning about 15 percent of the district’s students receive special education services. That compares to most districts, which Piersak said are normally about 10-12 percent, with 12 percent being considered high.

While many of the families in Watertown have had children in special education for years, many other families may be encountering the program for the first time. It is for those families, Piersak said, that an advisory council can be especially beneficial.

“Hopefully the advisory council is strong enough and willing enough to reach out in the community,” Piersak said. “Many of the families are very young, so this might be a new experience. Many of our other families have had children in special education for years, so they can provide support not only for each other, but also for the younger families.”

In addition to being a general support network for families, the SEAC also exists to provide training opportunities and workshops for parents. The idea is to provide an opportunity to share knowledge and experience. Bagge said simply getting parents involved is an important step.

“It’s really important that parents understand their role in the whole process,” she said. “I think with having the SEAC, parents tend to feel a little more empowered, so they’ll hopefully play a bigger role.”

In addition to the advisory council, local parents Mosford and Julie Cartland have founded a non-profit organization called CAPE, or Community Allies Providing Empowerment. The goal of the organization is to seek grant funding that can be provided to schools and other organizations in Carver County to aid students with complex learning, physical, medical, social or emotional needs.

Mosford also said there will be an upcoming program for parents to better understand their child’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP). The program will be held on Saturday, Jan. 19, at noon at D’Vinci’s in Watertown. There is a small fee, but it can be waived if needed. The goal of the progam, Mosford said, it to help parents learn exactly what their child is entitled to and how to get it. Parents can RSVP to Doty Mosford at 763-245-8880 or [email protected], or Julie Cartland at 651-263-2775 or [email protected]