“So, I understand he has Down syndrome,” stated a young boy as he approached Kelly Baldrate and her son, Sean, at a lakefront playground. Baldrate affirmed his statement and the boy proceeded to engage Sean in a conversation about pets and movies. The boy revealed that he had a school friend who has Down syndrome, and he was thus empowered to approach Sean. 

Relaying this story at the District 65 Board meeting Aug. 23, Baldrate noted that this had been the first such inclusion experience for then-9-year-old Sean – and sadly, one that has not been repeated in the four years since.

A new districtwide group, the Special Education Parent Council (SEPAC) aims to foster a greater connection between families with extra-needs children and those without, so that moments like that playground interaction cherished by the Baldrate family are no longer rare occurrences.

“Once you start reaching out to people who are a little different from you in some way or another, like the next time you do it, it’s easier, right?” Baldrate said. “There’s practice that develops, of just sort of openness and connection.”

Defining inclusion as “belonging,” Baldrate said that in her experience, “disability is sometimes an afterthought in the larger discussions we have about identity, marginalization, inclusion and equity. And SEPAC hopes to widen the circle of people who understand how our kids can fit into this vision as well.” 

Initiated by Romy Decristofaro, Assistant Superintendent of Student Services, SEPAC’s stated mission is “to facilitate partnership and collaboration between families of children with disabilities and the School District. The goals are to promote understanding of and respect for children with disabilities, as well as inclusion of and improved outcomes for them in school and in the larger community. In short, we seek to nurture a sense of belonging for all.”

SEPAC is poised to serve a multifaceted role, including networking, support, advocacy, resource-sharing, communications and community-building.

At the inaugural SEPAC Meeting May 12, Baldrate and School Board member Marquise Weatherspoon were elected as Co-chairpersons, and bylaws were created. Unlike other school-specific support groups that have been established in the past, SEPAC represents the first districtwide group. Baldrate acknowledged that previous efforts have been marred by challenges in gaining traction, as many families are already feeling overwhelmed. 

But she is optimistic that there will be strength in numbers, as there are “18 schools in District 65. And our kids have similar issues sometimes. So I’m hopeful that this districtwide group can be more effective in speaking directly to policies that might be beneficial or changes that might help serve us collectively.”

Additionally, the ability to meet virtually may alleviate some of the demands that are involved in accommodating in-person meetings. 

Marquise Weatherspoon

Weatherspoon sees SEPAC as a resource to help amplify voices that may feel unheard or underserved. “There are parents that are bringing their concerns, and they don’t feel like they’re able to be heard by either their children’s team or the district administrators,” she said. “And we want to make sure that we provide that opportunity.”

Weatherspoon said that her son “has gone through basically every aspect of being in special education services throughout the District” and is now thriving as an eighth grader. She noted the importance of the group’s partnership with DeCristofaro who she said is “great with listening and also helping us to implement, you know, some strategies to give us some suggestions on how to navigate the special education system in District 65.”

‘It’ll just open the door a little bit more’

Both SEPAC leaders felt that the District is moving in the right direction toward enhancing the sense of belonging that they would like to see. They hope to pull in the wider community by providing opportunities to learn and connect.

“We want our community to be involved in it, so that our children feel like they’re included in the community and feel like they are, you know, included in their schools with their friends,” Weatherspoon said. “And (they can) teach their friends if they don’t know how to approach a child with a disability, so they can feel comfortable making friendships, because that definitely helps our children.”

All District families are invited to attend the first SEPAC event, “Creating Wider Circles” with two renowned experts in the field of Inclusive Education, Dr. Kristie Pretti-Frontczak and Dr. Julie Causton. Starting at 7 p.m. Oct. 5, the 90-minute program on Zoom will feature information on inclusive education, as well as tips on how to help children embrace diversity and inclusion. (A Spanish-language flyer is here.)

“I think if people tune in, they’ll enjoy it and start thinking about things in a new way. And it’ll just open the door a little bit more,” Ms. Baldrate said. More information about SEPAC and “Creating Wider Circles” can be found on the District’s website.

Bessie Mbadugha

Bessie N. A. Mbadugha took a hiatus from her previous life as a Chemistry professor to devote more time to her family, and became an active leader in numerous community initiatives in Hillsborough, North...