Pictured left to right: Juan Cardona, Parent (Davidson County); Belinda Martinez, Parent (Montgomery County); Tamatha Ward, Parent (Davidson County); Acting Assistant Secretary Michael Yudin, US Dept. of Education; Belinda Hotchkiss, Executive Director, Tennessee Voices for Children; Bernadette Gray, STEP Board of Directors Chair and Parent (Shelby County)
STEP, Inc. (Support and Training for Exceptional Parents), Tennessee’s Parent Training and Information Center was honored to host a parent/family engagement roundtable with Michael Yudin, acting assistant secretary for the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS). U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan wrapped up his fifth annual back-to-school bus tour on Wednesday, Sept. 10, with events in Nashville and Memphis, Tennessee. This year’s “Partners in Progress” bus tour had stops in Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee, highlighting the three states’ commitment to encourage reform and innovation in education and to help all students achieve success. Traveling through places that represent the cradle of America’s civil rights effort, the tour places a focus on important work that is closing gaps of opportunity many young Americans face. STEP staff members attended two of Secretary Duncan’s events in Nashville and Memphis.
As part of the “Partners in Progress” bus tour, senior Department officials held additional events on Wednesday, Sept. 10, highlighting the Obama administration’s work to increase access and opportunity for students. One of these events was a round table arranged at the request of Mr. Yudin to hear about the landscape of special education in Tennessee. STEP staff, led by Executive Director Karen Harrison, assembled a group of twenty stakeholders with a diversity of representation to dialogue openly with Mr. Yudin regarding the priorities of the US Department of Education and what is happening in education in Tennessee. He specifically wanted to hear from parents regarding their experiences in navigating special education services. Valuable parent perspectives were given by two past recipients of STEP’s Advocate of the Year Award, Juan Cardona and Belinda Martinez who spoke of the importance of good communication between schools and families and the need for the “high expectations” set by the US and TN Departments of Education to filter further to the building administration level as a means of improving outcomes for students and families. Other parents, including Bernadette Gray, Chair of the STEP Board, Barbara Wagner and Tamatha Ware highlighted the importance of families knowing their rights and how to effectively communicate with school personnel on issues related to ensuring a free appropriate public education for children with disabilities. Karen Harrison spoke of her personal experiences navigating systems from early intervention from birth to three, through the transition from high school to the adult world with her daughter and the need for families to be connected to disability organizations and community entities to ensure smooth transition to post school education, employment and independent living. Joey Ellis, Middle TN STEP Coordinator, provided insight from the perspective of a person who received services through an Individualized Education Plan in high school who learned how to advocate for needed services during his transition journey.
Perspectives were also provided from key leaders in the disability and education field including: Joey Hassell, Assistant Commissioner of Division of Special Populations, TN Department of Education and his colleagues Tie Hodack, Director of Instructional Programming and Suzanne Keefe, Director of Special Projects; Carol Westlake, Executive Director, Tennessee Disability Coalition; Marcus Hayes, Director of Compliance, Department of Exceptional Education, Metro Nashville Public Schools and his colleague Pamela Burgess; and Belinda Hotchkiss, Executive Director, Family Voices of Tennessee. Mr. Yudin’s description of the US Department of Education’s commitment to holding states accountable for outcomes, rather than simply checking boxes of compliance, resonated with the group. Participants were invited to continue collaborative discussions and have further dialogue with Mr. Yudin, specifically around areas that were noted as key priorities of the administration, including Early Learning in inclusive settings, expanding preschool programs and the Birth to 5 Watch Me Thrive initiative; Inclusive education and transition outcomes where students leave with a set of skills prepared for the 21st century; and Equity and Opportunity for all students, which is supported by the administrations My Brother’s Keeper Initiative.
STEP, Inc. houses one of 109 Parent Centers funded by the US Department of Education. This forum provided an opportunity to showcase the work of Tennessee’s Parent Center, which is celebrating 25 years serving families who have children with disabilities age birth through 26, youth with disabilities and working collaboratively with schools and other organizations that also provide services and supports to families and youth. Agencies serving families expressed the importance of partnerships and the quality, relevance and usefulness of STEP training, materials and support services. STEP, Inc. (Support & Training for Exceptional Parents) is a statewide nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization that is funded in part by federal and state grants and relies on individual, corporate, and foundation contributions and support. STEP’s mission is to empower parents through information, training and support to become effective partners with professionals in planning appropriate educational programs for their children with disabilities. STEP services are FREE and available to any parent or family member of a student receiving special education services or who may need special help in school. STEP, Inc. was recently awarded a 5 year Parent Center grant by the US Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs to continue our work with families and youth. For more information about services provided by STEP and to view upcoming events visit www.tnstep.org or connect with a STEP team member in an office in your area of the state by calling 1.800.280.7837 (English) or 1.800.975.2919 (Española) .