Kris Johnston has been advocating for the educational needs of her autistic son for 13 years and every year she has to be sure he gets the services, she says.
But Johnston, of Cordova, said a two-day intensive training for educators and parents of children with special needs, to be presented in Juneau and Anchorage next month, provides parents with the knowledge to work with school districts to receive services.
"It's like a dance, and parents are part of it," Johnston said. "As long as everyone's on the same team, it goes well."
The Juneau School District, with about 5,400 students overall, has 850 to 900 students with special needs.
Johnston, chairwoman of the education committee of the Governor's Council on Disabilities and Special Education, attended a training given by attorney Peter W.D. Wright and pyschotherapist Pamela Darr Wright in Baton Rouge, La., last year. The council decided to sponsor the training in Alaska.
The council was looking for a way to teach parents about the federal law that governs special education, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and to learn how to advocate for their children. The law requires schools, in consultation with parents, to create and follow individualized education programs for children with special needs.
The most recent reauthorization of the law, in 1997, increased the opportunities for parents to be involved in their child's evaluation for services and in planning the education program, said Art Arnold, of the state Department of Education.
For many parents of special-needs children, developing an individualized program and making sure it's followed is a daunting process. Don Douglas of Juneau said it was a jolt for him and his wife when he learned that his son has an autism-related disorder.
"It's just something you've never dealt with before, when you have a child who has a disability," he said. "As we proceeded along this, it was a matter of slowly groping our way to learning what's a '504' plan, what the difference is with an IEP, what's the school obligated to do and not obligated to do."
The Douglases were helped by advocates from Parents Inc., which holds a federal grant in Alaska to assist special-education parents, and from REACH, which serves people with developmental disabilities and operates an infant learning program. The advocates knew what to say in meetings in which individualized education programs were crafted, Douglas said.
"Oftentimes their children have needs, but they may not understand what the IDEA is about," said Wolfe, director of the REACH team that helps parents with individualized education programs. "This training will leave families with practical ideas that they can immediately apply to their situation."
Training on special-needs children
When and where: April 8 and 9 at Centennial Hall in Juneau, and on April 13 and 14 at the Egan Center in Anchorage.
Costs: $105 for one parent; $125 total for two parents; and $120 for professionals such as teachers and lawyers.
Registration: www.wrightslaw.com or (907) 646-9000