The Rapidian

Parent driven advocacy organization works with GRPS to ensure students' needs are being met

When GRPS announced cuts to Special Education summer programming, a group of parents and community members came together to form an advocacy organization that led a movement to keep programming intact.
Jessica Schmidt working on her mobility skills on a typical school day at Lincoln Developmental Center

Jessica Schmidt working on her mobility skills on a typical school day at Lincoln Developmental Center /Courtesy of SNAAKC

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It started with a Facebook post. And another. And then another. Parents at Lincoln Developmental Center, a Grand Rapids Public Schools (GRPS) school that serves students with the most complex special needs throughout Kent County, were being notified that summer programming was going to be dramatically cut for 2016. GRPS informed parents via a newsletter that summer hours at the GRPS special education center based schools (Lincoln School, Lincoln Developmental Center and Pine Grove) would be reduced by nearly 40%. Under these changes, a student’s typical school day would run for less than three hours, and many would end up spending more time on a bus or receiving basic care rather than engaged in meaningful educational activities.

Within a week, a small group consisting of mostly parents but also a few community members and concerned GRPS staff, gathered in a home on the southeast side of Grand Rapids. They wanted to discuss what could be done to ensure that children with special needs who require (and are entitled to by state law) year-round education, are protected. In November 2015, The Special Needs Advocacy Alliance of Kent County (SNAAKC) was born.

The group quickly organized, established a board, and has been meeting regularly since then. The parents on SNAAKC’s board have children with a wide variety of special needs. Some are wheelchair bound. Others are dependent for all of their care. Some require around the clock monitoring to ensure safety. For these parents to meet on nearly a weekly basis requires great effort. The commitment and passion of the members is evident.

“My days are packed with taking care of my family and working a full-time time job," notes Amy Dean, one of the founding members of SNAAKC and the parent of a child who attends Lincoln Developmental Center. "I make time to advocate for my son's unique needs because he deserves more than the bare minimum of services.” 

When Dan and Maureen Schmidt, also SNAAKC board members, learned of the announced cuts to summer programming, they felt an urgency to advocate for their 8-year-old daughter Jessica. Jessica has cerebral palsy, a condition which has impacted every area of her development and has resulted in global delays. A typical morning at the Schmidt home begins at 5:30. Because of Jessica’s medical conditions and disabilities, Dan and Maureen’s morning consists of a complex schedule of care. Jessica requires medication, a tube feeding and the task of applying braces and ensuring that she is properly positioned in the custom built wheelchair she relies on for mobility. Once she is ready for the day, she catches a bus equipped with a hydraulic lift to accommodate her chair at 6:50 a.m. Her school day does not actually start until 8:00 a.m. If the cuts were to happen, Jessica would spend as much time preparing for her school day as she would actually being at school working on her educational goals.

“I couldn’t imagine spending one and a half hours getting her ready, to ride the bus for over two hours each day," says Maureen Schmidt, "for a less than three hour school day.” 

After making a public statement at the December School Board Meeting asking GRPS to reconsider the announced cuts and to more fully engage parents and community members in the decision making process, SNAAKC created a petition on Change.org. The petition specifically asked that GRPS refrain from cutting instruction hours for the upcoming summer, and instead maintain the calendar that had been in place for the 2014/2015 school year. The petition struck a nerve, quickly gained traction and gathered over 350 signatures in its first two days. Signers had the option to send a message along with their signature to the School Board. Many shared their personal stories.

“I’m signing this because my child deserves to be in school longer than her bus ride,” one petition-signer noted. The petition and comments can be viewed on the Change.org petition. GRPS responded quickly, and publicly stated that the hours would remain intact for 2016.

On January 7, the Special Needs Advocacy Alliance of Kent County participated in an event hosted by Equity Drinks, another grassroots organization in Grand Rapids focused on advancing equity. GRPS administration participated as well, and numerous community members were able to share concerns and raise issues regarding special education. GRPS hosted a meeting on January 21 to continue the conversation; parents, administrators from both GRPS and surrounding districts and other stakeholders engaged in meaningful discussion about the future of services for individuals with special needs in the community.

Although instructional hours for Summer 2016 have been reinstated, SNAAKC’s work is just beginning. The organization’s mission is built on advocating for the best interests of individuals with special needs and their families in Kent County. That is no small task, and there is much work to be done. 

Kent Vocational Options (KVO) is a GRPS program that provides services to students aged 17 to 26 with cognitive impairments and autism spectrum disorder. Michigan law dictates that individuals who require special education programming are entitled to school services until the age of 26. Two years ago, KVO completely eliminated summer programming. Jakki Jones is another SNAAKC board member. Her 21 year old son Corey has been attending KVO for the past three years. Cuts to the summer program were devastating for Jakki and her son who relied on the consistency school provides.

“The lack of summer program for us is very difficult because without it, Corey loses most of what he learned during the school year," says Jones. "The disruption in his schedule results in increased anxiety and depression. These issues are a direct result of no available resources in the community for a young adult with special needs.”

Alliance members will be meeting with GRPS administrators in the near future to follow up on concerns that the petition, the Equity Drinks event, and the recent GRPS led meeting elevated. SNAAKC is hopeful that GRPS will follow through on its commitment to more fully engage parents and the community when making decisions that will dramatically impact services to students with special needs. Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal told parents at the January 21 meeting that GRPS will not go below half day summer programming for students with severe multiple impairments and that she will look into the cuts to KVO. The organization would like to see GRPS develop new and more effective ways of communicating with families, as well provide increased opportunities for parents and community members to connect with the district, and ensure that these opportunities are inclusive so that the diversity of the community is fully represented. 

If you would like more information about SNAAKC, you can visit the organization’s Facebook page or send an email to [email protected].

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