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Success Story:
Saving a Class, Saving Our Children

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children in classI wanted you to know that the voices of parents, kids, and teachers can make a difference in handling negative decisions by school administrators.

In our district, for 6 years, there has been a High Potential Special Needs class (HPSN), a cluster class of Grades 5-6-7.

The success stories of the kids in class would keep me typing all night. You'll have to trust me when I say that it has been LIFE SAVING in some cases, and life changing for nearly all of the students and their families.

It has taken nearly 6 years, but the entire school has begun to accept the students in this class.

Bullying incidents diminished. These kids, who so often suffer from ostracism, now have a group of intellectual peers. They are more accepted on the playground. They have made huge strides in self-esteem issues. They are also in a highly enhanced educational environment.

Bad News!

Two weeks ago, the awesome teacher of this class received a phone call from central office. She was told that the class would be moved to a local junior high school (Grades 8-10) in September.

We were shocked and devastated.

We began an enormous letter-writing and phone call campaign. We got the local press involved (town of approximately 15,000-16,000). We had a town meeeting in late June. (More than half of the board members attended because they had received so many phone calls!)

"We Simply Told Our Stories"

We were polite. We were not demanding. We were not rude. We simply told our stories. Our children told their stories.

The teachers who had seen remarkable changes in our kids stuck out their necks and spoke. The teacher of the High Potential Special Needs class stood up and said, "The message you are sending is that these kids are throw away kids!"

The stories!!!!

The father of one kid, a pharmacist, stood up and said that he knew from his experience how many gifted learners were on anti-depressants in elementary school - with significant increases in the last few years.

The grandfather of one of the kids, a doctor, talked about brain development. He advised that the theory that the brain is a static organ is a fallacy. He explained that we are damaging these kids by NOT providing them with enough stimulation to meet their needs.

Some parents spoke of problems their kids had because they were "double identified," and how government cuts in education caused their special needs to be unmet.

A woman who worked in the system for 25 years, fighting for children with special needs, spoke powerfully and emotionally. She explained that the proposal to move the class to the junior high school, combined with years of government cuts, would slowly strangle the stream of students eligible for the class to the point where the class could justifiably be eliminated.

Anyone who left the meeting without being moved to tears at least once had to be made of stone.

The school administrators and board members listened.

Class is Saved

On the following day, we were advised that the class would not be moved. The board also felt principals needed to be better educated.

There was dancing, weeping, happy weeping. For once, our voices made a difference.

Curiously, I had coffee with one of the board members the following evening. This woman is very active (some just ride the bus of the position, you know?), has come to the Gifted Association Conference, has been a good listener.

She said: "You know, I've been a board member for 6 years. I didn't really understand the needs of these kids. There must be many other school districts where they don't understand. Perhaps some of the parents and teachers could speak about these needs at our next board training weekend."

I know many battles are lost. But I thought you'd like a story of success.

Maybe, at the grass roots level, we need to inform and educate the decision-makers - school administrators and board members. Maybe this is also a form of advocacy.

Pam answers:

I didn't attend your town meeting but your letter moved me to tears.

Telling stories is one of the most powerful tools we have when we deal with people, especially people in power.

Gerry Spence wrote about this is his book, How to Argue and Win Every Time. This book is not about arguing - it is about oral persuasion - how to tell stories from the heart, truthfully, without blaming. When we do this, we help others (decision-makers) see things as we do, and offer them the chance to right a wrong.

As you learned, when many people tell their stories, they can often persuade decision-makers to change a position or decision. We must allow people to change their position without losing face.

You are right - there are many ways to advocate.

What is an Advocate?

Here is how the dictionary defines the term "advocate":

ad-vo-cate - Verb, transitive. To speak, plead or argue in favor of. Synonym is support.

1. One that argues for a cause; a supporter or defencer; an advocate of civil rights.

2. One that pleads in another's behalf; an intercessor; advocates for abused children and spouses.

3. A lawyer. (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition.)

Special education advocates speak for children with disabilities and special needs who are unable to protect themselves. The advocate performs several functions:

* Supports, helps, assists, and aids
* Speaks and pleads on behalf of others
* Defends and argues for people or causes
(Source: Wrightslaw: From Emotions to Advocacy, page 3, "Learning About Advocacy")

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