Daily file photo by Patrick Svitek
The Special Education Parent Advisory Council, a new group that will collaborate with Evanston/Skokie School District 65 to advocate for disabled students, elected its first officers last week.
Marquise Weatherspoon and Kelly Baldrate are the group’s co-chairs, Cara Hunwick is secretary, Silvia Rodriguez is membership chair and Jacquelyn Lowe is a member at large.
These leaders have spent years advocating for a better educational experience for their own children, but the creation of SEPAC allows them to press for district-wide change too, co-chair Baldrate said.
“I’m excited about the SEPAC because it’s the first time in my experience in the district that we’ve had something like this,” Baldrate said. “It’s a chance for parents now collectively to have a voice with the administration, which is something a lot of individual parents have been trying to do separately on their own.”
Assistant Superintendent of Student Services Romy DeCristofaro said after joining District 65 in 2019, she wanted to initiate a group like SEPAC to elevate families’ voices in their children’s education. Since the district’s introductory meeting in December 2020, SEPAC has met twice.
Now, with bylaws in place and officers elected, DeCristofaro said she’s excited for the future of the group.
“I was so motivated to develop this partnership because I know that when schools and families are working side by side, we’re going to have better outcomes for kids,” she said. “I feel fortunate that there’s interest, that there are enough parents that really are feeling this experience will be valuable.”
DeCristofaro estimated that about 40 people signed up for the group’s email list at the time of its first meeting. Now, that number has more than doubled, she said.
Though SEPAC is in its early stages, co-chair Weatherspoon said, “the sky’s the limit.”
“I feel very optimistic about what we’re going to be able to do, and if we set our goals that we’ll be able to achieve them,” she said. “This is a historic moment in time that will carry out some good outcomes for our future SEPAC members and their children and their families.”
Weatherspoon said SEPAC is all about family engagement. Though “parent” is in the name, she said that SEPAC wants to incorporate the voices of any caregiver that supports a child to succeed in their education.
Co-chair Baldrate said too often parents and caregivers feel like they’re on their own in their advocacy. It’s easier to have hope when people are working together, she said.
“A lot of parents — and I certainly felt this — feel lonely when they’re doing it, they feel like they’re the only one,” she said. “Like anything, it’ll kind of wear you out, and to know that other people have had this experience and are pushing toward the same goal is very powerful.”
Secretary Hunwick echoed that sentiment. When she first heard about SEPAC, she said she knew she wanted to be involved in any way that she could.
It was reaffirming to talk with other families and share experiences and ideas, she said.
“What we hope to get out of it is more positive outcomes for kids and families with IEPs and 504s,” she said. “The role of the SEPAC is to share information with families, and to advocate for families and kids and to partner with the district to be a part of the decision-making process regarding special ed.”
DeCristofaro said she plans to attend every SEPAC meeting she is invited to, and that she and assistant director of student services Tricia Murray can help bring SEPAC’s input to guide the districts’ decisions, actions and initiatives..
Hunwick, Baldrate and Weatherspoon all said they were excited to collaborate with the district and contribute to these decisions.
“It gets exponentially harder to do as a parent from the bottom reaching out with this vision, but if someone at the top shares that vision, and is helping it trickle down through the administration (to) the teachers on the ground, that’s going to be a lot easier,” Baldrate said. “Those two forces might come together to really start making change.”
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