Parents of children with special education needs converged Friday inside a banquet room at Hodel’s hungry for information, which was served up in abundance thanks to months of outreach from the Kern County Superintendent of Schools.
Every two years, the office hosts Specially Yours, a conference the KCSOS created in order to give parents an opportunity to hear about best practices, information and training to support their students with disabilities and how to help them in a home setting, said Melissa Wood, coordinator of the Kern County consortium for SELPA, which stands for Special Education Local Plan Area.
“Often parents that have a student with disabilities or high needs, they’re not sure where to start,” Wood said. “And so we really wanted to bring everyone together and say, ‘Hey, here’s some great organizations to work with. In addition, here’s some great information on academics, behavior, social emotional learning — really just empower our parents to best serve their children.”
Since 1977, every region throughout the state has had its own SELPA, which determines how special education services will be provided.
Specially Yours is a relatively new addition to Kern County, with this year’s conference being the fourth version. In the last two years, more and more parents have been asking for information about home-schooling with their special needs children, due in large part to the pandemic, which was one of the focal points of the conference, Wood noted.
Renee Gonzalez, who chairs the community advisory committee for the consortium, can relate to the difficulties parents may face in navigating the system. Before she became involved, she had similar challenges with her two small children, who are currently ages 7 and 12.
“The school told me that they screened (my daughter),” Gonzalez said, “and they said, ‘She’s OK to start kindergarten, no problem.’ But then once kindergarten started, teachers started telling me, ‘I’m seeing this, this and this — I think you should (have her tested).’ And I was like, ‘We already went through all that.’”
Gonzalez went back to the school and told officials and relayed to them what teachers had told her. Gonzalez didn’t realize there was a difference between the screening process and the evaluation process, she said, which is what started the journey that brought her to Hodel’s.
Now she helps guide the outreach that helps parents like her request what they need from their respective school districts, and addressing these needs was a big part of the goal of Friday’s all-day conference.
In addition to speakers and informational booths from service providers, parents had an opportunity to ask questions of a panel of professionals experienced in special education.
Aerobel Ortiz and her husband, Jesus, who have a 9-year-old, were attending their second Specially Yours. Jesus Ortiz said he found it helpful because the conference gave them insight on what questions to ask when they have IEP meetings with school staff, which are how Individualized Education Programs are developed for students who have special needs.
“It helps you feel like you’re not alone, like you’re not the only parents with a child with special needs,” said Aerobel Ortiz, adding that learning from other parents there who have older children was helpful, too.
“I think that this is a good way for us to try to figure out how to connect with our kids because no matter how you look at it, our kids think that we don't understand what they're going through,” Gonzalez said, referring to how most lost 18 months or more of socializing during the pandemic. “And maybe we don't, but this gives us a good opportunity to get some good tools to try to help them through that process.”