Open dialogue: Group helps special education community

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Rachel Rasnake, a special education teacher at Walker Upper Elementary School, says concerns voiced by her students’ parents have helped her remodel some of her practices. Rammelkamp Foto Rachel Rasnake, a special education teacher at Walker Upper Elementary School, says concerns voiced by her students’ parents have helped her remodel some of her practices. Rammelkamp Foto

The parent of an eighth-grader who receives special education at Buford Middle School says her daughter doesn’t appear like she’s disabled.

Lisa Torres’ daughter is moderately to severely dyslexic and has some difficulty with speech articulation, but she’s enrolled in advanced classes and also in the band.

“I’m a parent who’s at a different end of the spectrum,” she says, adding that when people think of a disabled student, they often think of a child in a wheelchair or with autism. “My daughter’s is more silent,” she says, but “a disability is a disability.”

Torres is a member of the Charlottesville Special Education Advisory Committee, which aims to give people involved in special education a voice, along with dealing with unmet needs and developing plans for improving the performance of disabled students.

Torres describes her daughter as “a child who wants to be looked at as normal and a teenager,” who is “struggling with acceptance of the fact that she needs these accommodations and, yet, doesn’t want to have to raise her hand and say, ‘Hey, wait a minute, I didn’t get that.’”

The committee gives Torres a platform to make her concerns known. For example, she believes it would be helpful if students could stay with the same case manager, instead of being introduced to a new one each year, like her daughter has.

SEACs have been mandated for every school district in Virginia since January 2012, according to Emily Dreyfus, chair of the local SEAC for most of the past decade, and a member from 1998 to 2013. She says 571 disabled students are currently enrolled in Charlottesville public schools.

Daphne Ingene, co-chair of the Charlottesville SEAC, says students in special education receive little attention from the general public and their needs can go unnoticed and unaddressed.

Parents, guardians and family members of students with disabilities, people with disabilities, related community service providers and other community members make up the 25-person committee, which formally meets four times each school year and informally every second Thursday of the month. Though members must apply to be on the committee and are appointed by the Charlottesville City School Board, all meetings are open to the public.

Ingene, along with co-chair Tina Dumheller, hosted a teacher/administrator and parent dialogue dinner November 16, after one of the major concerns brought up to the committee was that these two groups lacked sufficient communication.

“I feel like a lot of our parents are overwhelmed and not active participants,” says Rachel Rasnake, a fifth-grade special education teacher at Walker Upper Elementary and a SEAC member. “I didn’t realize that our parents were intimidated…and that was something that I could address immediately by making sure my [students’] parents knew that my door was open and that they were as much a part of the team as everyone else.”

Rasnake is currently working toward improving communication with Charlottesville parents by making sure everyone in Walker’s community is informed of school events and that they’re accessible to everybody—“not just physically, but making sure everybody feels included.”

“As a parent,” adds Dreyfus, “it was always very gratifying when my [disabled] son’s teachers heard our ideas and ran with them.” When she wanted her son to gain employment skills, special educators at Charlottesville High School started a program that helped more than 15 students with disabilities gain hands-on experience in community organizations.