School Beat: The Community Advisory Committee for Special Education And Why It Matters

by Amy Ottinger on June 8, 2006

Advocating for a child with special needs can feel like a full time job. There are so many things to learn: your child’s rights, best teaching practices vs. what may be available in the district, what type of programs are offered at the different schools and where to turn if things aren’t going smoothly. On top of that, as with any child, we only get to rear them once, and the time goes by quickly. With so much to do and so little time why would volunteering be a good idea? Because volunteering and working with others who have faced similar challenges allows us to share our experiences and learn from one another.

The Community Advisory Committee for Special Education (CAC for SPED) cannot advise on a child’s needs, nor recommend placements, but it is a place where parents can work together with teachers and administrators on new ideas and better communication. The CAC is mandated by California Education Code to advise the administration and the Board of Education on the Local Plan—the “blueprint” of special education services. The committee consists of community members, professionals, district representatives, and parents of children with disabilities, who must make up a majority of the committee.

At the monthly meetings, members make connections with other parents and teachers of children with special needs as well as with district administrators and policy makers. Regular attendance allows members to keep up with changes in district policies and impending legislation. The CAC also helps form a collaborative working environment in offering training to the community.

This past year has been an exciting time for the CAC. We have formulated a Strategic Plan from input gathered at a large community meeting a year ago. Throughout the past year a trained facilitator worked with the CAC board and all who came to the meetings to prioritize, condense and shape that input into a clarified vision and five goals that translate to committees chaired by CAC members. Those committees are:

1. Planning, Monitoring, and Evaluation [Promote effective programs and services for students with special needs by providing input into San Francisco Unified School District’s planning, monitoring and evaluation (Local Plan).]
2. Promotion of Ongoing, Quality, and Up-to-Date Training and Education to Ensure Student’s Success
3. Leadership Development, Recognition and Outreach [Increase the involvement of families and students to ensure quality education and support for students with disabilities.]
4. Disability and Diversity Awareness [Increase public awareness and community acceptance of individuals with exceptional needs.]
5. Management of the CAC [Ensure that the objectives as articulated in this Strategic Plan are implemented by members of the CAC and other volunteers.]

In addition to the work on the Strategic Plan, the CAC has also been involved in legislative actions. At this time last year, the state legislature was pushing a plan to make school districts responsible for providing mental health services to students. Currently, county mental health centers handle these services and SFUSD does not have the capacity or expertise to take them on.

If the state were to force greater mental health responsibilities on the schools, counselors and other staff would have to be hired to provide these services, but the state’s record on fully funding such mandates is not good. And ironically, such a system would replace one — the community mental health centers that currently provide mental health services to students — that many people agree is actually working. Local CAC members joined in opposing the bill, which was tabled (although it appears that the issue is up again as the new budget finalization period comes nearer).

The CAC also participated in the Special Education Local Plan Area (SELPA) Legislative Action Day at the beginning of May. Six parents joined SELPA director, David Wax, and Special Education Ombudsperson, Carol Kocivar in a morning of legislative updates and networking with others from across the state. In the afternoon, we met with our local representatives and their staff members.

We learned that of all fifty states, California provides the lowest funding to meet the federal disability mandates. We made a case for the need for our representatives to fight for better funding for our school district, particularly for special education. Perhaps most importantly, we were also able to put human faces to “special education” and share stories of our kids’ struggles and triumphs.

At the recent Board of Education budget committee community meeting, a CAC member asked about the cuts Special Education will face as the current budget is finalized. At this meeting the CAC member was able to meet the school district lobbyist and has given us another avenue to pursue better state funding in order to minimize special education’s annual encroachment on the school district’s general fund.

This year has also been a year of transition for the CAC membership. Four new members have joined and all have stepped up to board positions and committee chairs, joining a core group of long-time members, including Linda Tung, current CAC Chair. We have our work cut out for us both in the month ahead, as we plan our annual report to the Board of Education, as well as for the year ahead when we transition to the new CAC board and work on the Strategic Plan and try to broaden our outreach.

As with any volunteer organization, the more members there are, the more the workload can be shared and the more that can be accomplished. We hope to continue to see new faces at the meetings—held on the fourth Thursday of each month (except July and December) at Open Gate, 2601 Mission Street, Suite 300, from 7:00 to 9:00 p.m. Childcare and translation services for those meetings can be reserved in advance by calling Open Gate at 920-5040; parents of children with disabilities can apply for a $50 stipend for attending the monthly meetings. Go to www.calfec.org for details.

Amy Ottinger is the parent of two children who attend Lakeshore Alternative Elementary School in the SFUSD and is a member of the district’s Community Advisory Committee for Special Education.

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