The Arc of Spokane: Empowering Parents to Be Better Advocates at School and Beyond
The Arc of Spokane empowers and supports parents of adults and kids with disabilities through their Parent to Parent program. In 2022, the chapter saw an opportunity to expand their support of parents of school-aged kids with disabilities by leveraging grant funding to provide scholarships to The Arc@School’s Advocacy Curriculum.
The Advocacy Curriculum is a self-paced, online training, designed to support families in navigating the special education system. It takes users through the special education basics and prepares them to effectively advocate for appropriate educational services and supports.
Recently, we spoke with The Arc of Spokane’s Advocacy and Family Support Director, Jennifer Oliveri, and their Parent to Parent Coordinator, Tami Leitz. They shared how their idea to provide scholarships to the Advocacy Curriculum came to life, how their program works, and why they think other chapters can replicate this successful model.
Identifying a Need and an Opportunity
TAMI: Part of my job involves parent training, and we have designated funds to help with that [through a grant from the county]. In the past, we were sending people across the state to an infant and early childhood conference, but it wasn’t very accessible for parents of children with disabilities—and it was also only for early childhood.
So, I talked to Jen, who’s my supervisor, and asked if we could think of some better ways to use the funds. One of the ideas we had was to give people scholarships to The Arc@School’s Advocacy Curriculum. We want to help as many people as possible, but it’s impossible to go to every IEP meeting, so the more people we can get educated about the law, the more we can ensure parents are able to hold school districts accountable. Jen loves new ideas and was on board with putting a proposal together.
JENNIFER: We’re funded through Spokane County for parent training. So, we outlined a few ideas for them on different ways we could use the money, including Tami’s proposal. We know that IEPs are a top priority, but we wanted to give them a few choices. Thankfully, they approved the use of funds for IEP training. This means we are able to give scholarships to parents to access the Advocacy Curriculum for free.
Adapting the Program to Different Learning Styles
TAMI: The first time we did this, I offered two options. Parents could either go through the online curriculum on their own, or they could come to a one-hour Zoom class on Tuesdays. We scheduled the Zoom classes during a lunch break time slot, and we would go through the online modules together. After each video, we would talk about any questions they had. Then, we would go through some additional PowerPoint slides I made with state and county specific information.
I made slides for each module because things can vary a lot from state to state. I wanted to make sure parents got information about things like how to access the birth-to-three program or what transition looks like in their area, because it can vary from school to school. After that, parents could stay on Zoom with me if they had personal questions. I did that every Tuesday for eight weeks with that group, and we went through the entire curriculum together.
“I highly recommend The Arc@School curriculum to parents of kids on IEPs and 504s. I learned so much!” – Alisha, WA
For some people, having that accountability works. But then you also have parents who are a little more independent, busier, and just happy to go through it on their own.
Empowering Families & Why Learning How to Advocate Is So Important
TAMI: We really focus on empowerment and celebrating education. We don’t want families to feel like they’re powerless and the systems are impossible. Sometimes, I get people where maybe their child is 16 and they say, “Well, we’re almost done. What’s the point of learning this now?” But it’s still so important to learn how to advocate, because they’re going to be working in systems like this forever with their child. Parents will have to use this skill later in their journey when dealing with Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or the Developmental Disabilities Administration or vocational rehabilitation, so it’s never too late.
Empowering parents and caregivers with this information is vital. They are not being educated about their rights, so, often, their student’s education, relationships, and mental health suffer because of it. Schools regularly [don’t comply with the law], and most people—sometimes even the teachers—don’t realize it’s happening or how to intervene. When people understand their rights, advocate, and expect to be treated fairly, systems can change. This curriculum is important to support individual families, but on a larger scale, it’s the kind of resource we need in order to see systematic change.
Advice for Chapters Interested in Replicating This Program
TAMI: One of the hardest things about an IEP is communicating the information to a student’s team from year to year. A new school year can feel like a total do-over to families. By empowering [them] with this information, it can save time for advocates and parent support professionals.
[It’s also helpful for] family resource coordinators, therapists working for school districts, and teachers to go through the curriculum. These professionals act as guides to families in schools, but many may not have had the opportunity to learn about special education law. The curriculum equips them with knowledge, but it can also give them a greater capacity for empathy by providing a better understanding of what people with disabilities are up against when trying to access services.
JENNIFER: It’s like the adage of “teaching people to fish.” While we can provide one-on-one support to those seeking assistance with IEPs on a limited basis, in Spokane County specifically, there are hundreds of people who need assistance with understanding their rights when it comes to the school system. This model supports more people and gives them the lifelong tools to advocate with confidence. I don’t know if every chapter has extra funds necessarily [to start a similar program], but it could be worth it to look into grant funding to try to replicate this model.