In this audio podcast, Connie Hawkins and Jan Serak, two longtime directors of Parent Centers, who are themselves parents of children with disabilities, talk about the network of nonprofit Parent Training and Information Centers and Community Parent Resource Centers. These Parent Centers, funded by the U.S. Department of Education, were created specifically to help families understand their rights and responsibilities under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
Learn about the free training, information and assistance that these centers are required to provide and how these resources can help parents make informed decisions as they negotiate the special education process.
Candace Cortiella: On behalf the National Center for Learning Disabilities, I’d like to welcome Connie Hawkins and Jan Serak of the Network of Parent Training and Information Centers and Community Parent Resource Centers, which are funded by the U.S. Department of Education. Connie and Jan are long-time directors of parent centers and now head up two of the nation’s six regional projects that assist the Network of Parent Centers around the country.
Most importantly, Connie and Jan are both parents of young adults with disabilities, which has brought them to this important work that they have been doing for so many years.
Before Congress included a requirement for Parent Training and Information Centers in the 1983, amendments to the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (originally passed in 1975). That’s the law we now know as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Connie, can you tell us why did Congress include a requirement for parent centers in the federal special education law?
Connie Hawkins: I think there were two influences on the beginning of our network of centers. One was the fact that this was a complicated law and it was a new law and it created new processes. Educators are used to staff development of their own people within the educational system. But the question was rightly asked: How do we make sure parents know? And if you remember, as it is today with IDEA, it had a lot of requirements for families and opportunities for families to have partners [through these centers].
We also had the opportunity to have really great leadership in what was called the Bureau of the Education of the Handicapped. They realized that families needed this information but took the risk of saying, “We’re going to move away from professionals and universities training parents.” We already know there are the experts who are other families. This was exciting because it was the beginning of a whole different way for families get information.
Candace Cortiella: That’s very interesting. I think that, as most parents know, once they get involved in special education, there are certainly a lot of rights that are intended to benefit children and parents. But there are also an awful lot of responsibilities expected of the parents. So I think it was only wise of Congress to understand that they needed to create a system that could support the families and help them understand their responsibilities and fulfill their obligation to the provisions of the law.
Connie Hawkins: I also think it was important to model the recognition that parents are the best advocates for, and experts about, their children.
Candace Cortiella: That’s a wonderful point. Jan, what are the essential duties of the parent centers as prescribed by the federal special ed law?
Jan Serak: Parent centers are required to provide training information and assistance to families of children with disabilities. To quote the law, IDEA requires that parent centers: “Meet the needs of parents of children with disabilities to help their children meet, develop mental and functional goals and challenging academic achievement goals that have been established for all children and to be prepared to lead productive independent adult life to the maximum extent possible.”
IDEA also requires that the Training and Information Parent Center meet the needs of low-income parents and parents of limited English proficient children. But IDEA doesn’t exactly define how these charges have to be done. So the ways in which centers actually provide these services vary greatly from center to center across the country depending on the needs of the families in their area and the funding that’s available to those centers.
More than 264,000 parents and professionals receive training annually from the parent centers. They train parents in a variety of ways:
through teleconferences, webinars, video conferences
training modules that are archived on the center’s website
DVDs they mail out to parents.
There are even some downloadable apps now that some of the centers have developed for use on iPhones and iPods so that they’re reaching out to a younger population of families.
Training topics vary from center to center. Topics usually center on IDEA, birth-to-three early intervention services, the special ed process, and helping parents understand all the processes that relate to IDEA, IEPs, IFSPs (Individualized Family Service Plan). They do training on effective communication to help parents and schools more effectively talk with one another. They also address the procedural safeguards that parents have under IDEA which include mediation and other dispute resolution options.
Parent centers have to provide information assistance but do so in a variety of ways. They distribute informational materials (either hard copies or email, content off their website) about the topics I just mentioned and related to what we also do training on. These materials are really research-based, embedded with information. If materials include legal information, we have it checked out by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs.
We also offer assistance services. Center staff assist parents by phone, email, and in person to help them understand the options that are available. One of the required services of parent centers is to assist parents in resolving disputes [with schools] by explaining the benefits of the various alternative methods of dispute resolution (such as mediation) and encouraging use of these methods.
Some, but not all, centers have the capacity to support parents with extended services such as actually accompanying parents to IEP meetings, mediations or resolution sessions, or facilitated IEPs. Some centers spend a lot of time preparing parents on the phone but aren’t able to actually go with families in person. Some train volunteers who are parents to support other parents by doing that. So there’s an extended reach and a building of local capacity.
I think the final requirement of parent centers is to network with the federally funded Protection and Advocacy Agency in each state and also with National Technical Assistance Centers that are funded by the Department of Ed. So we have a lot of charges but parent centers use a lot of creativity.
Connie Hawkins: When we first started, being directive meant letting families know about their rights, how to negotiate the special ed process and [how to develop] the skills they need. This is still an extremely important part of what we do.
But with the changes in the law over the last few reauthorizations that really look at effective practices, best practices, research-based practices, our work started to include giving families information on what research based practice is and what good educational models are out there. So families are making informed decisions as they write IEPs and work collaboratively with educators on improving the educational outcomes for their kids.
Candace Cortiella: So in fact the quality of special education has become part of your work.
Jan Serak: Yes, absolutely.
Connie Hawkins: Absolutely. But by giving parents the skills and the information they need for the quality services.
Candace Cortiella: Right. So how many parent centers are there currently in the United States?
Connie Hawkins: There is at least one Parent Training and Information Center in every state. Our large states like New York and California have more than one. And then we have 30 Community Parent Resource Centers (CPRCs) which were added to the parent center language in the law in the early ‘90s. They are small, parent-driven, community-based organizations that work in diverse, unique communities that are predominantly made up of underserved or hard-to-serve families. And they’ve added a lot to what we do because they are community-driven and community-based; they are again our model of parents serving families, parents serving each other.
Candace Cortiella: So do the parent centers serve parents of students with all types of disabilities, including learning disabilities?
Connie Hawkins: Absolutely. And [even though] I am the mom of an adult with learning disabilities, [and there are many different disabilities,] we [at the centers] get it. We’re like McDonald’s. You drive through. We serve everybody.
It is definitely a challenge. Most of our staff members are themselves parents of children with disabilities. But we learn as we go. Our commitment across the network of 106 centers is that we serve all families. That does make us unique because many organizations are disability-specific.
Candace Cortiella: So Jan, tell us how do parents find the Parent Centers?
Jan Serak: The parent center is continually engaged in outreach activities to try to get the word out. It’s always a challenge for us. Every so often we’ll come across somebody who says, “Oh my goodness, I wish I’d known about you five years ago.” Our response is, “Okay, we’re out there. We’re giving information. And we’re really sorry we didn’t get to you.”
But every center is required to maintain a website with information about our services. Last year we reached 20 million people through newsletters and websites. A lot of the centers do this by setting up exhibits at conferences, community sites, and schools to disseminate information about their services. Some try to get the word out by sending mailings to say, birth-to-three or Head Start agencies, doctors’ offices, and daycare centers.
Some centers are able to get public service announcements or short TV radio spots to advertise their center. Last week we had, Real Milwaukee (a new local TV show in Wisconsin) do a taping in our center and broadcast a six-minute promo about us. It was awesome and generated a bunch of phone calls from parents asking for more information about our services the day after the show aired. So that was very nice.
A parent support group was featured on a half-hour spot that targets the Spanish-speaking audience. We also try to reach parents through social networking methods, like Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. These are rapidly growing ways that parent centers are using to reach parents, particularly those with young children. And, of course, parent-to-parent word of mouth is how many parents find us and use our services. If we do a good job, the word spreads.
Candace Cortiella: Are schools required to tell parents about the centers when their child is found eligible for special education services?
Jan Serak: Some schools do provide that information to parents. Some give parent center brochures to parents. Teachers often tell parents about parent centers. Schools are required to give out what’s called procedural safeguards informational booklets, or they put in a booklet to parents at least once a year. Many of the schools include parent center contact information in that booklet, but they’re not required to do that.
Some schools include the parent center information on a page of their IEP forms so that it says if you have questions or concerns about your child’s IEP, call these numbers. They’ll often list the Protection and Advocacy Agency and the PTI or CTRC. Those are the acronyms for the parent centers and community parent research centers. But this isn’t required.
Connie Hawkins: I want to follow up on something Jan said earlier: Parent centers are working really hard to be accessible to families who are not native English speakers. We do outreach in communities who do not have the tendency or the ability to look in the phonebook for a parent center. This is becoming very much a part of our work now to make sure that we’re known but also totally accessible to families regardless of language or education level or anything like that.
Candace Cortiella: So, how many students are currently served by special education in this country?
Connie Hawkins: I think it’s about six million.
Candace Cortiella: How many parents of those six million children do you estimate the parent centers are able to reach and help each year?
Jan Serak: Out of the 106 parent centers, we have to actually report annually on the number and demographics of the families we serve. And last year, there were over 1.4 million, 31% of those were racially, culturally diverse families which is a particular demographic group we’re trying to reach.
Connie Hawkins: One thing that upsets us is when a family says, “Why didn’t I know about you five years ago?” And that’s the universal statement from our parent centers. It does frustrate us when families don’t know about us. But we’re trying and we’re definitely visible. We definitely want families to call with the caveat that we are all independent, family-driven, usually fairly small nonprofits. So like everybody else is doing today, we’re balancing our resources.
Candace Cortiella: Exactly. I think it’s important to point out that the amount of funding that you receive [should probably be] substantially increased in order to increase your capacity to serve families, especially if you use social networking and other technologies to increase your reach. It would be important for you to have the financial resources to do that.
Candace Cortiella: If somebody wants to find a parent center in their state, how do they go about doing that?
Jan Serak: We just launched a fantastic portal website which is a great doorway to the Parent Center Network. The address for that is parentcenternetwork.org. Parents can go to that website and look up any parent center in their own state or anywhere in the country.
The other neat thing about our website is that, if somebody is looking for materials on IEPs for example, the website will search every single one of the websites of all 106 parent centers for that information. So with this portal website, we not only have information from one center but from all of them, accessible at the same time.
Candace Cortiella: This is a wonderful new resource for everyone. I think it’s particularly helpful since one thing that I’ve noticed over the years is that as the centers establish themselves in individual states, they basically come up with their own names. So the names of the centers vary tremendously from state to state and might not be readily recognizable as the federally funded parent centers for parents for students with disabilities. So the new portal is a wonderful way for people to conveniently and quickly find the parent center in their state or community. Do you have any closing thoughts for us today?
Jan Serak: We’re really excited about the opportunity to reach out to others in this way so that they can really learn about what we’re doing and find the parent centers in their areas. Thanks so much for the opportunity to provide this information.
Connie Hawkins: We also want families to know that there’s no such thing as a wrong question or a dumb question. I mean that’s what we’re there for. Most of us at the parent centers are parents ourselves. We can simplify the process by not only answering questions but also by helping families understand and learn how to find the answers for themselves. So we like having calls from families.
Candace Cortiella: Thank you both for joining us today. We appreciate all of the information you’ve shared with us and, most importantly, we appreciate all of your hard work over these many years on behalf of parents of students with disabilities.
This transcription was made possible by a grant from the American Legion Child Welfare Foundation.