FOUR Things We Love about New Jersey “SEPAGs”
If you haven’t heard about Special Education Parent Advisory Groups (SEPAGs), keep reading! If you participated in the evolution of SEPAGs or volunteer on yours, please comment below and share your experience.
Through its Statewide Parent Advocacy Network (SPAN), New Jersey led the way in establishing national guidance for SEPAGs. SPAN’s guidance, “Special Education Parent Advisory Groups in New Jersey: A Guide to Developing and Conducting an Effective Group,” (hereinafter Guide) contains 40-plus pages of user-friendly information for schools and parents. https://spanadvocacy.org/download/start-sepag-guide/
SPAN’s Engaging Parents of Students with Disabilities initiative provides free technical assistance to parents working to start or enhance a local SEPAG. https://spanadvocacy.org/programs/start/groups/
UPDATE! In the spring of 2020, SPAN released a new, excellent resource:"Best Practices for Ensuring Collaboration Between Special Education Parent Advisory Groups (SEPAGs) and Boards of Education (BOEs)." https://spanadvocacy.org/Quick_Guide_6.pdf
SEPAGs are required under the New Jersey Code:
‘‘Each district 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."
See N.J.A.C. 6A:14-1.2(h).
While the NJ regulations require a special education parent advisory group, they’re also often called special education parent advisory councils or “SEPACs.” The regulations do not require a certain name. Nor do the regulations require a specific number or meetings or a type of organization. Thus, each school district has wide discretion in organizing its SEPAG.
SPAN’s Guide describes SEPAGs as:
“… a state-mandated, district-level, parent-driven group charged with providing input to the local school district on system-level challenges in special education and related services.” See Guide, page 3.
While SEPAGs must be “parent-driven,” a truly successful group requires supportive and involved school administrators and parents, together. And, based on our discussions in the community, when a parent or educator does not have a positive experience, one of these ingredients was missing. When executed properly, SEPAGs have great potential for collaboration.
Basics aside, here are four “things we love,” about what some local SEPAGs are doing.
1.The SEPAG is easy to find and clearly post the dates of their meetings.
Advo-Kids talks to so many parents who do not know what a SEPAG is or whether their district has one. Our favorite SEPAGs have an easy-to-find link on the school district’s main website. Even better are SEPAGs that have a brochure linked to the website and distributed throughout the district and community. Our favorite websites contain the SEPAG’s mission and vision (if established), list all the current participants, their contact information and list past and upcoming speakers (including materials in some cases).
2. The SEPAG is parent-driven, but the school district is responsive and involved.
One purpose of a SEPAG is to gather input from parents on district-wide issues facing all students with disabilities. If that is to be meaningful, the school district must participate. Advo-Kids offers free education at SEPAG meetings and we’re often bombarded with important parent questions about the basics of special education afterward. Yet, at times, there are no school district employees there to observe, join the conversation or consider the parents’ feedback; this seems like a missed opportunity for productive dialogue. Certainly, some SEPAGs may convene and later report-out to board members or administrators, but we love seeing all stakeholders at the table whenever possible.
Board members and district administrators are well-served by truly hearing parent concerns, not just to fulfill the required purpose of the SEPAG, but to provide feedback and information about what systems-level factors might be causing the issues. Parents do not always have access to important information about how a district is structured or funded, yet gain valuable insight if informed. When both sides understand the “system,” often they realize that it’s actually the law or state funding mechanisms creating the problem, not either side. This can lead to new ideas about collaboration and problem solving, rather than being bogged-down by miscommunication.
3. SEPAG offers training and shares information.
The best SEPAGs dispel special education myths and misunderstandings by providing information! Our favorite SEPAGs gather parent input on what areas they most want training and provide it!
If parent members are confused about progress monitoring on IEP goals, then an experienced district employee could offer training. How about parents who want to learn more about reading fluency, phonemic awareness or supporting their struggling reader at home? Have parents heard of “MTSS”? Again, the district, in-house, can provide parent-training on those issues. Are parents concerned about school-avoidance or where to find counseling for their child? Bring in the outside partners who can help. Advo-Kids, along with many other organizations, are often willing to offer training for low to no cost.
4. The SEPAG is connected within the district and with outside organizations!
A SEPAG should not be an island that only a few willing parents know about. We love SEPAGs that are integrated into the school community. Many school districts have a parent representative involved in its strategic planning – how about a SEPAG member? If not, are the SEPAG members informed on what a strategic plan is and how their input might impact it? Is their input shared with board members? Are SEPAG members on other school committees?
We love SEPAGs that connect parents with representatives from local organizations, both public and private, such as counselors, social activities for students with unique needs, Family Support Organizations and other supports available through the NJ Children’s System of Care (NJ CSOC). One of our favorite SEPAG brochures includes contact information for PerformCare right on the SEPAG brochure.
Advo-Kids welcomes the opportunity to support your district’s SEPAG, whether through meeting facilitation, training on special education or best practices in organizing your SEPAG. Please contact our office at ADVO-KIDS@posternockapell.com for more information.
© 2019 Advo-Kids, “All Rights Reserved.” This article is for educational purposes only; it does not provide legal advice. Please be advised that there is no attorney-client relationship between you and Advo-Kids or this author. This article should not be used as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed attorney in your state.