Back to School more than just pens and paper

PARKERSBURG – Preparing to return to school for the parents of special needs students means more than buying a new backpack and having the right pens.

A workshop, “Back to School: Beyond the Books, Paper and Pens,” was conducted Wednesday and sponsored by Families and Communities Embracing Support Disability Networking and Support Group to provide information for parents, siblings, guardians, caregivers and interested residents to assist special needs students in getting ready for school and to make sure their needs will be met.

“I cover 14 counties, including offering training for parents on special education laws, assistive technology, and related topics. Students with disabilities may need assistive technology, modifications, accommodations that may be written into their Individualized Education Plan or 504 Plan.

You want to make sure all those things are in place before school starts,” said Jill Fox, parent/trainer with West Virginia Parent Training Information.

“It’s extremely important for parents and the school system to work together in order for students with disabilities to have their needs met. Communication is key,” she said.

Fox has a perspective to offer because she is also the parent of three children who have a rare genetic syndrome that resulted in developmental disabilities.

“So I face the same challenges and struggles as other parents with children with disabilities every day,” she said.

The goal of the “Empowered Program,” which is in its third year, is to strengthen expertise in special education advocacy. The program is funded by the Ross Family and the Parkersburg Area Community foundations.

“We found that the number one need for information and referral is help for parents to navigate through the educational system,” said Christina Smith, executive director for The Arc of the Mid-Ohio Valley. “We understand the importance of having community resources including other parents themselves who have gone through the process to call on when you have a specific need. We found through the Birth to Three program, and The Arc that families need specific supportive networks for different periods of time during their children’s lives. We are working with a community approach to bring resources, agencies, parents, professionals together with the topic being the focus.”

“Although I am a professional in the field, from a parent’s standpoint, I live the special education system on a daily basis and still need support and networking with other families and other professionals,” Smith said.

Her daughter who has Down Syndrome is transitioning from elementary to middle school this year.

“When my children were getting ready to start school we were told they were too small to be with the other children and would not fit in, that they needed to be schooled at home,” Fox said. “Our twins are now 18 and it’s still an ongoing struggle.”

She urged parents to volunteer and become involved with school activities, to advocate and communicate with school officials, actively participate in their children’s education, encourage and educate school officials and their children’s peers about disabilities and using respectful language. She urged parents to make sure needed accommodations and modifications are in place before their child’s first day back at school.

“I can’t stress enough the importance of communication and putting everything in writing,” Fox said.

Those attending the workshop Wednesday at the Judge Black Courthouse Annex public meeting room included parents, foster parents/caregivers of special needs students, local social service agency officials, representatives of Westbrook Health Services, officials with area school systems, the Children’s Home Society, West Virginia University at Parkersburg and Kevin Smith, who serves as state coordinator with the People First advocacy group.

“We started a youth group and I came to the workshop to learn more about IEPs so I could help answer questions,” Kevin Smith said.

The F.A.C.E.S. Program provides ongoing resources, program updates, information about education components, resource awareness, and socialization on issues that impact the lives of those with disabilities and their unique needs and challenges.

The Arc of the Mid-Ohio Valley offers information, referrals, programs and services including assistive technology, systems advocacy, self-advocacy, networking and family education, disability awareness, recreation and socializaion programs, prevention, health and wellness, emergency preparedness, adult living skills, inclusion and also houses the Birth to Three Region 2 Program.

The Arc serves as the regional administrative unit for an eight-county region providing services to infants and toddlers under the age of three who have a delay in one or more areas of their cognitive, physical, social and emotional, adaptive or communication development or may be a risk of having those delays. More information on the West Virginia Birth to Three Program is available by calling 1-866-401-8919 or 304-485-2000.