By most standards, Cherry Hill is a very large school district. With 19 schools in the district, in addition to students in out-of-district placements, issues of compliance and meeting the needs of district parents can be challenging. Once Ms. Weathington, the Director of Special Education, became aware that the district needed to have a state-mandated Special Education Parent Advisory Group (SEPAG) , she reached out to one of the Parent Group Specialists on the START-Engaging Parents of Students with Disabilities in Schools (START-EPSD) Project of the SPAN Parent Advocacy network to help her get a district SEPAG up and running. [ New Jersey Administrative Code 6A: 14-1.2(h) , mandates that ” Each board of education shall ensure that a special education parent advisory group is in place in the district to provide input to the district on issues concerning students with disabilities .”]
Ms. Weathington began by sending request for letters of interest to district parents of children receiving special services. Of the parents who responded, twenty were invited to the initial SEPAG meeting , one parent from each school in the district and one parent representing parents of students in out-of-district placements. In addition to the district parents, the initial meeting included the Director of Special Education, all four special education supervisors and the 504-coordinator, as well as the START-EPSD Project Parent Group Specialist. The group began by identifying the positive things about the district as well as some of the challenges for children, and families of children receiving special education services. Over the next several meetings, the SEPAG, using the generated list, began to identify priorities and to create a vision and a mission statement . The list also helped to inform meeting agendas , and to define the group’s goals .
Creating the vision and mission statement was an important step in forming a solid foundation for the group. This foundation was formed over the course of the school year. Before a group can begin to take any action or to give any input to the Board of Education, it is important that they have established themselves as an existing, sustainable group . In Cherry Hill, this was accomplished using several tools available through the START-EPSD Project, including Serving on Groups , Leading by Convening , and Creating Collaborative Action Teams .
Once the vision and mission statements were created, they were posted on the SEPAG page of the district website where any district parent is able to access information about the group , including the names and contact information for parent representatives from each school . The SEPAG page also lists the “Three Key Takeaways” from each meeting and possible topics for upcoming meetings. The Cherry Hill School district website is one way that the SEPAG uses available technology to connect with all parents in the district to keep them abreast of group accomplishments .
There is another very important way that the Cherry Hill SEPAG takes advantage of technology. One challenge that the group has faced and continues to address is establishing a consistent meeting schedule . It is important for a group, especially a new group, to meet on a regular basis in order to maintain momentum and strengthen the relationships between group members. In a SEPAG or any type of volunteer organization where all or most of the members also have full-time jobs, this can be very difficult. The Cherry Hill SEPAG has had success in this area by meeting online using platforms such as Zoom , Webex or FreeConferenceCall (audio only). These online meeting platforms provide an economical way (each of these has a free version) for members to more easily accommodate the group by allowing parents to participate in a SEPAG meeting from home or soccer practice or wherever a busy schedule finds them.
Every district has its challenges when it comes to finding ways for parents and schools to work together. This is certainly true for a district as large and diverse as Cherry Hill Public Schools. The Cherry Hill SEPAG is proving, however, that when both sides are motivated , and truly understand and appreciate the importance, and benefits of parent/school partnerships , then they will find a way to make it work…for everyone.