By Jazelle Hunt
NNPA Washington Correspondent
WASHINGTON (NNPA) – Just in time for the start of the school year, the Department of Education has allocated nearly $14 million to state resource centers for parents of children with disabilities.
These parent training and information centers (PTIs) were created as part of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). They are essentially all-in-one resource hubs, leadership training grounds, and peer support groups for parents of children ages 0-26 with physical, developmental, and learning disabilities.
Nearly 1 million Black children receive services under IDEA, or 15 percent of all children with disabilities, according to the Department of Education.
“Funding is crucial to help families understand the educational system, specifically for families from diverse backgrounds,” said Isabel Garcia, president and CEO of Parent to Parent of Miami, a community parent resource center serving Miami-Dade and Monroe counties in Florida.
“It’s just become such a challenge across the nation to meet the needs of children and families to ensure they have better outcomes in the educational system. I don’t think enough families know that the parent centers are there for them to be accessed and to give them support.”
In addition to PTIs, many states have community parent resource centers (CPRCs) that do the same work, but in underserved communities. At both PTIs and CPRCs, families can learn how to navigate the school system, how to help their child succeed in school; and how to ensure their rights are respected at school.
“Sometimes there’s conflict at the school level…we call and try to mediate. We resolve issues, instead of having [the families] just file for due process and end up in litigation. That takes years,” Garcia explained. “The fact that we can advocate for them gives them confidence, so they’re more likely to go to meetings, and to get involved with their child’s education so that their child can have better outcomes.”
At CPRCs, parents can also participate in workshops and trainings to become advocates themselves and teach other parents to do the same. In addition to education resources, the centers help decipher and access Medicare benefits, help parents develop strategies to keep their child safe at home and in their neighborhood, help parents plan for their child’s future, and help them secure connections to lifelong services. All of the centers’ offerings are at no cost to families.
“[Parents] appreciate the peer-to-peer assistance, the personal attention, the fact that we’re all parents of kids with disabilities and there’s no judgment. The only information they need is to have is a concern about their child’s disability or just their developmental stage,” said Garcia, who has two adult daughters, one of whom has cerebral palsy. Garcia began accessing the Miami center in 1989 and eventually became a volunteer, board member, and advocate.
Parents are not required to bring any particular or official information to a PTI or CPRC. In some cases, parents can receive some assistance even if their child has not been diagnosed, often by using Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Centers also help such parents by simply connecting them to other parents with similar concerns.
The Department of Education gives 5-year grants to CPRCs and PTIs in batches of states per year – no centers in the 25 states funded this year will be able to apply for funding until 2017. Across these 25 states, 40 centers have been awarded funding.
Centers must “compete” for awards through an intricate application process, and funding varies from year to year. Since the services must remain free to families, many centers fundraise and receive donations to fill the gaps when federal money falters.
“The challenge is that there’s so many families who need support and services, and there’s really not enough funding to…be able to meet the needs of families in general,” Garcia said.
As of the 2012-2013 school year, roughly 6.4 million students – or, 13 percent of all students 21 and under – have disabilities, according to Department of Education estimate. Almost half have a learning disability or speech/language impairment.
“The most important work of the parent center is that we let these families know they are not alone,” Garcia said. “That’s really the most important message the IDEA sends to families with the parent centers – this is the one place you can call and get information from parents who have been there. Some of us have made it, and have been successful at it, and there’s hope.”