Community is critical for parents of children with special needs. Community gives us emotional support and provides information about our kids’ therapeutic, medical, and educational choices. Our communities have the experience and knowledge to weigh in on our decisions; its members empathize and help us keep going when times are hard, and they rejoice with us in our children’s accomplishments.
It’s not always easy to connect with parents like us. These kids we love so much are vulnerable, they need us – and the demands of our extra-intense parenting can leave us feeling drained and isolated. But if you can muster a burst of energy and round up a few like-minded individuals, then you can create your own community: by forming a Special Education Parent Teacher Association, or SEPTA. That is what we did when we helped found SEPTAR, the Special Education PTA of the Redwood City (California) School District.
Most traditional PTAs are attached to a single school. We found that this model didn’t work for us, as most campuses in our district had only one or two special day classes, or a few students in full inclusion. So we made SEPTAR district-wide, including any family with a child with special needs, from Early Start (age three) through eighth grade. We also reached out to teachers, therapists, staff psychologists, and community leaders.
As parents, we already had a vision of support, education and community. Forming a new PTA also takes resolve, district support, and a lot of attention to detail (at least in the beginning). But it was worth it. SEPTAR is now in our fifth year. We have become a go-to resource for our special education families, with a parent support group, a speaker series, and social events such as weekly park playdates and “Break from Winter Break” jump house parties.
We have the full support of our District leaders, and put a lot of effort into maintaining open communication, in working with administration rather than against it. And our special education teachers feel supported; we provide grants to help our educators go to seminars, or get our kids the equipment they need. We host a bi-annual conference for parents and professionals on topics that include social skills development, and technology and communication -- to help parents get informed, and contribute to our childrens' educators' professional development.
Our name is out in the community now: we hand out business cards, and we attend the local Education Foundation events. During the last election cycle we even hosted a moderated debate by the school board candidates.
Below is a basic how-to for starting a SEPTA. It may look daunting, but we somehow managed to do all this in less than six weeks:
- Find at least five people who share a common vision, and are willing to pay dues plus meet together many, many times. You can find these people in your childrens’ classrooms, or on local email parenting boards. Ask your child’s teacher, OT, PT and behavior specialist too!
- Contact your district’s head of Special Education and ask how they would like to be involved. You could also contact someone from the Board of Education.
- Select a secretary and a chair from among this first group to undertake responsibilities until officers can be elected.
- Organize temporary bylaws and nominations committees (we recommend organizing a communications committee as well).
- Have your chair contact the local district PTA president, or a state representative -- easily done by going online, and searching for your city name and “District PTA President.”
- Draft bylaws, working with the local state PTA representative the district PTA president helped you locate. This person will ensure that you follow state PTA guidelines.
- Determine officers, meeting times, and dues amounts.
- Set a date for the organizational meeting to actually form and charter the new PTA unit.
- Have the nominating committee draft a slate of officers for the new PTA board. This might happen quickly, or it might take a while if you need to search for people to fill certain positions. At the very least, you must have a president, secretary and treasurer.
- Set a date for the meeting, and get this information to as many parents as possible. This is why you want to have a communications committee, which can determine the best channels for communicating to as many people as possible. We announced our first meeting in the local paper, via flyers and emails to the schools, and via email to local special needs parenting groups.
- At the organization meeting, follow parliamentary procedure. The original committee chair should call the meeting to order and state that the reason for the meeting is to organize a new PTA. Then a motion to start a new PTA is made and a vote is taken. If the motion passes (and we're sure it will) a break in the meeting is taken and those present at the meeting join the PTA.
- After the break, the newly formed PTA elects officers.
- The new PTA president takes over the meeting, presents the bylaws, and has the association vote on adopting them.
- The new president may then add other items to the agenda.
- When the meeting is over, the new president needs to sign a few papers which make the new charter official.
At every SEPTAR association meeting, we have parents lingering, talking, conspiring, connecting – taking part in a community that understands them and their kids, and wants to support them fully. With a little organized structure, our PTA provides resources, camaraderie, and the opportunity to come together as one community.
Please keep in mind that PTAs are non-profits, which must meet certain criteria to maintain their non-profit status -- so please check with your State PTA before randomly filing taxes and signing checks!