The Role of Parent Centers in Supporting SEPACs

At the core of the Parent Center mission is an effort to engage parents in advocacy and systems change through information, training and support. In states in which SEPACs are in place, whether or not they are required, Parent Centers are taking an active role.

Here are some ways in which Parent Centers across the country are supporting parents as local advisors.

Leader Training Programs

Many states report using the ‘Serving on Groups’ Training Program, developed in Wisconsin, to help parents learn how to be effective members of a SEPAC. In South Dakota, a rural state where distance can be a barrier, SEPACs are not required but many districts have established one. There, Parent Center leaders report using the ‘Serving on Groups’ training curriculum, offering the program live, and also via Skype and webinar. When the webinars are over, they are posted to the Parent Center website for use at any time.

In California, Parent Center staff use the ‘Parent Leadership Curriculum,’ developed by Family Voices to help prepare families to be advisors. Because of the linguistic diversity in that state, they plan to offer the full program in Spanish this year. They are also using the ‘Serving on Groups’ curriculum.

Direct Support to Families

Many states provide direct support to parents in the form of stipends and scholarships. In California, a state well known for traffic in urban areas and long distances in rural areas, Parent Centers provide ‘gas cards’ to help parents pay for transportation. They also offer scholarships for parents to attend conferences from other organizations.

Part II: A Guide for Local Action | Chapter 2: The Role of Parent Centers in Supporting SEPACs

Direct Engagement with local SEPAC

In Kansas, Parent Centers have been invited to provide training on the SEPAC model. Districts there realize that the groups need training and support through the life cycle so the Parent Centers train existing groups, and in districts looking to start a group.

“Some of the LEAs have invited us (PTI) to provide training for their local SEPAC. This has been done both to create interest at the startup of a group, as well as for long-standing groups. Some of the SEPACs disseminate information about PTI activities to try to engage parents.”
– Lesli Girard, Families Together, Kansas

In New York, Parent Centers staff serve directly on a SEPAC as a voting member.

“Buffalo has a Special Education Parent Advisory Committee. It is a formal Committee of the Board of Education. The purpose is to provide advice to the special education department and provide support to families. Parent Network of West New York serves as the only community member.”

– Susan Barlow, Parent Network of Western New York, New York

In California, Parent Centers provide trainings, host two meetings a year with SEAC chairs so they can collaborate and maximize resources. They also offer one-to-one support via phone, as well as in-person clinic appointments.

In Michigan, Parent Center leaders take an active role in mentoring individual parents as advisors.

“Currently, our PTI is pretty heavily involved in trying to mentor parents to be involved in PACs, to take leadership roles to help facilitate PACs to be a true parent engagement activity.”

– Nicole Miller, Michigan Alliance for Families, Michigan

In Pennsylvania, Parent Center leaders train families, and attend local meetings.

“We make sure we connect to each of the local task forces, and we have had a number of individuals who have gone through our parent leadership program who go on to serve in a leadership role on their local task force.”

“We try to have a PEAL staff member attend at least one meeting for each local task force.”

– Jeannine H. Brinkley, PEAL Center, Pennsylvania

In Rhode Island, the state special education regulations (300.900) specifically direct each LEA to contract with the Rhode Island designated Parent Training and Technical Assistance Agency or other community-based non-profit parent organization in order to provide support to the committee. The mandated technical assistance includes the role of advisory committees in advocating for children, state and federal regulations, community resources, strategic planning and development of an annual report to the school committee.

Part II: A Guide for Local Action | Chapter 2: The Role of Parent Centers in Supporting SEPACs

State-funded Training and Support

In Virginia, the state DOE has funds for the Parent Center to provide training.

In Michigan, PTI staff present training at ISD on topics such as IEP Basics, IEP and Beyond, and Personal Curriculum (if students need a different curriculum aligned with standard one). They also have a training called ‘Skills for Effective Parent Advocacy.’ The local SEAC meetings are not parent-led; typically they are district-led (the ISD staff lead the sessions).

Guides and Print Materials

In several states, Parent Centers have taken a proactive role in supporting local SEPACs through the development and dissemination of guides, brochures and flyers.

In Minnesota, PACER has developed a comprehensive 118-page training program to help parents become active leaders of their local SEPAC. Rich with resources, including job descriptions, and tips to energize the SEPAC, the guide can be used as a whole, or broken down into its 12 individual modules.

In New Jersey, SPAN Advocacy received state funding in 2016 to produce a guide to develop and run local SEPACs. In addition to being posted on SPAN’s website, the guide is also on the NJDOE website, and is being used as a framework for part one of this guide.

In Virginia, the Parent Center developed a comprehensive guide to operate local SEPACs.

“We have a guidebook with everything from recruiting to running a meeting on our state page. We do workshops through the PTI.”

– Kristin Kane, PEATC, Virginia

A Note About Laws, Rules and Regulations

Even in those states that currently require local SEPACs, there are vast differences in the ways in which they are established and used at the local level. In fact, some districts do not have them when they are required to, or have an ineffective SEPAC that operates in name only. No laws are self-enforcing, and rules and regulations are never a substitute for an attitude of collaboration and a commitment to using parents as advisors.

It is important, however, that there be movement towards a commitment to state-sanctioned SEPACs. Without it, SEPACs are at risk of coming and going.

“We have our PTOs, and some are specially for special education parents to relay concerns to the district. You might see an advisory group every now and again, but it kind of burns out…it does not hold any weight.”

– Carrie Woodcock, Maine Parent Federation

Making It Happen in Your State

Where should you begin if your state does not have local SEPACs?

Local engagement through SEPACs IS possible without enabling rules or legislation, but it is more likely to be carried out in a uniform manner if there are a few rules or guidelines from state government. Change can begin locally and grow organically to a statewide system.

Here are some ideas:

  1. Start hyper-local with your own school district to establish a local SEPAC. Use the strategies in Section I of this guide to get the ball rolling. Who better than a local parent leader?
  2. Look for local examples of parents as advisors to local school districts working in other areas, such as Title I. Use video, social media, trainings, and other tools to promote stories of successful collaborations and positive outcomes that came about as a result of well-organized parent advisors.
  3. Leverage the good work of the state’s Special Education Advisory Council (SEAC). Each state SEAC is required to have a period of public comment. Work with local parent leaders interested in being part of a local SEPAC to bring the message to state advisers and urge them to take action.
  4. Reach out to colleagues in states in which local SEPACs are active and invite them to speak at your conferences, webinars and other events to build interest and momentum.
  5. Develop and submit proposals to speak at statewide conferences hosted by major stakeholders (Special Education Directors, State’s School Board Association). Share the concept of the local SEPAC and describe how it can improve local services.
  6. Build partnerships with other organizations whose missions include parents as advisors for change (see Part II: Chapter 3).
  7. Leverage requirements for ESSA’s emphasis on parent engagement to help establish local SEPACs in your state (see ESSA in section below in this chapter).

Part II: A Guide for Local Action | Chapter 2: The Role of Parent Centers in Supporting SEPACs


ESSA: From Parent ‘Involvement’ to Parent ‘Engagement’

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) was signed into law in 2015, replacing the No Child Left Behind Act. This bipartisan measure reauthorized the 50-year-old Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the national education law reaffirming a commitment to equal opportunity for all students.

Parent and family engagement and consultation have always been a key piece of the law, focused on the low-income parents of ‘Title I-participating’ children. New language in ESSA emphasizes an important shift—no longer is it acceptable for schools to simply have parent ‘involvement,’ the law now requires parent ‘engagement’ – a much higher standard.

The state and local ESSA Plan is often overlooked as a vehicle for special education parent engagement. ESSA specially mentions that school districts MAY establish a parent advisory board to represent families in evaluating school policy. SEPACs can be an important resource in helping states meet the goals spelled out in their ESSA plans. In fact, in California the ESSA plan specifically mentions that state’s local parent advisory councils.

“If they are getting Title 1 funds, they have to have a parent advisory group. In Maine, there is a rubric for parent involvement through ESSA that includes a parent and family engagement policy, but no one is enforcing that.”

– Carrie Woodcock, Maine Parent Federation

Did you know?

  • Title I schools must develop a written policy on parent and family engagement, developed jointly with families.
  • Schools may receive Title I funding only if they conduct outreach to ALL parents.
  • Title I schools are required to coordinate and integrate parent engagement activities with other relevant programs.
  • When ‘Parent involvement’ is one of the outcome measures in a state’s ESSA plan, local SEPACs can be an effective strategy.
  • The law requires that districts build dual capacity. As such, they must provide specialized training to teachers and school leaders, with the assistance of parents, about the value of parental input and how to work with parents as equal partners.

TIP: Parent Centers can access funding through the local district or the state ESSA plan to help develop SEPACs at the local level.

“We are a vast rural state with a small population, so some districts have one advisory group to serve several functions. We have a lot of districts with Title I funding, so they have a parent advisory function, but it may not be specific to special education.”

– Carla Miller, South Dakota Parent Connection, South Dakota

To learn more: https://www.ecs.org/wp-content/uploads/ESSA-Quick-guides-on-top-issues.pdf.