Think tank: Parents and staff write ideas down on how to improve special education in D97 during a workshop last Saturday.TERRY DEAN/Staff

Cate Readling had heard good things about Oak Park’s elementary school district before relocating to the Chicago area from Connecticut last year.

The mother of a special needs child, Readling said parents must often be strong advocates for their kids. That doesn’t always go smoothly for some when dealing with a school district, said Readling, the mother of three.

“I know it’s different for every parent; some parents don’t always have a good experience,” she said.

But for Readling, that wasn’t the case when she enrolled her one child at the time in District 97.

D97’s reputation, however, has not always been so stellar. Complaints from some parents over the years included poor communication with staff and administrators and teachers not always following their child’s IEP (Individualized Education Plan).

A D97 workshop last Saturday for parents and staff addressed those issues and others the district faces. Taking place at Whittier School, 715 N. Harvey, the marathon, four- hour-plus session was launched last fall by D97 Special Education Director Michael Padavic. Saturday was the second “brainstorming” session.

About 30 people attended the workshop, with an even split between D97 staff and parents. They worked in small groups, discussing issues from various angles, including school facilities, technology and finance.

“This is an opportunity for parents to say, ‘This is what we need; this is what I can do,'” said Beth Kaplan, a D97 parent and workshop facilitator.

Among the improvements parents wanted was training for teaching assistants.

“The teacher has to do so many things, and then you’re left with a TA without a lot of classroom experience,” Kaplan said.

A “therapeutic” center or classroom was also mentioned; parents noted that kids with severe disabilities are currently placed at facilities outside the district. A D97 therapeutic center, they point out, would allow those kids to receive services in their home district. They also want to see money from the April referendum used to improve special ed services overall in the district. Making every school building federally compliant under the American with Disabilities Act was a priority — one suggestion included installing chairlifts at the schools.

Advocacy was at the top of the list for parents, including having someone independent of the district serving in that role. Padavic, who participated in Saturday’s workshop, said parents do have access to advocates outside the district, but stressed that staff internally must improve in that area.

Kaplan said the workshop will be followed up with additional meetings and the creation of “action plans” for some of the suggestions.

Readling, who attended both workshops, liked that parents’ voices were heard. But she recalled going into last year’s workshop a little cautious.

“Parents sometimes go into a special education meeting with their guard up. I’m glad that it wasn’t the kind of situation I was preparing myself for,” she said.

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