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Sag Harbor Parent Launches Special Education PTA

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By Marissa Maier

In 1597, Sir Francis Bacon wrote in the Religious Meditation of Heresies, “Knowledge is power.” Nearly four centuries later, the ubiquitous quote is applied to many different situations including the formation of the Special Education Parent Teacher Association (SEPTA) of the East End. For Cynthia McKelvey, co-founder of SEPTA and a Sag Harbor parent, the goal of the newly-formed organization is to educate parents on the special education process and empower them to play an active role in their children’s Individualized Education Plan, or IEP.

Navigating the world of special education services can often be confusing and overwhelming, reported McKelvey, who speaks from personal experience. McKelvey’s daughter, who is now seven-years-old, was diagnosed with a form of autism at a young age.

“All I knew about autism was [from the movie] ‘Rain Man.’ I drove home and said ‘what is autism,’” recalled McKelvey after her daughter was initially diagnosed. She then embarked on a journey of not only learning about autism, but finding a correct and more specific diagnosis for her child.

“Sometimes it is easy to just take someone’s word for it. If you go with the process and aren’t really taking the time to learn more you miss really important parts of the process,” said McKelvey. “Once a parent is more educated and understands the process they can understand their child’s IEP better. It is less intimidating.”

McKelvey explains that after a diagnosis is made the school arranges a committee for special education to plan that particular student’s IEP. The committee is comprised of the pupil services director, the people who evaluated the student, the parents, a parent advocate, and in some cases a teacher.

During the meeting, noted McKelvey, “You are talking about your child’s weaknesses and that is hard to hear.”

McKelvey further pointed out that IEPs are often filled with professional special education lingo and concepts that are often foreign to the layman, especially when discussing a student’s test scores.

At the first SEPTA meeting in January, McKelvey recalled that when she mentioned IEPs it appeared everyone shook their heads. The first meeting was attended by close to 38 people, proving to McKelvey that there is a need for this type of organization on the East End. Whereas in larger school districts, noted Dr. Lisa Scheffer, the Director of Pupil Personnel Services, SEPTAs are the norm. McKelvey pointed out the East End SEPTA chapter is the first of its kind in the area. SEPTA is open to the whole East End community, and McKelvey hopes it will attract attendance from residents in other school districts.

In addition to educating parents on IEPs, McKelvey says the organization will act as a kind of forum for parents to exchange information and lend emotional support to one another. She explained that a parent could come to the group to report, for example, on how a gluten-free diet is helping their child. Since both Dr. Scheffer and special education teachers will attend the meetings, McKelvey noted it would be the perfect opportunity for teachers in other districts to show how teaching aids are working in their classroom before Sag Harbor makes an investment in these tools or services.

SEPTA will host their next meeting on Wednesday, February 24, at 7 p.m. in the Pierson High School Library. In order to nominate the SEPTA board and accept the chapter’s by-laws, at least 25 SEPTA members must be present at this meeting. Membership costs $10.

“I cannot wait to see how many people come to the second meeting,” said McKelvey.