NISKAYUNA — After moving to the Niskayuna Central School District in January 2019, Joanna DiPasquale wanted to know if there was a parent-teacher organization aimed at supporting special education families – a resource she found invaluable in her previous district.
Amanda Mahar, whose first-grade son is a Niskayuna special education student, was also asking whether a parent organization for special education families existed – surely one must, she thought – as she settled into the complex world of special education last school year.
“I felt there was a need to connect parents that were going through a similar experience,” Mahar said. “The same way our kids have special needs in the classroom setting, us as parents also have some special needs.”
As it turned out, Barbara Graber, a 1988 Niskayuna High School graduate and the parent of four students in the district, including her sixth-grade son Edward, who receives special education services, had been asking similar questions for nearly three years. Graber had also nudged the ball forward on creating an organization that could leverage the shared wisdom of special education parents, serve as a network for those families and advocate for improved access to events and programs for all students.
Working with school leaders and special education administrators, Graber and other parents were nearing completion of a new organization when school districts were forced to close in the spring. The group will function as a chapter of the New York State PTA, the umbrella organization serving well over 1,000 parent-teacher associations in the state.
Now, after multiple years of planning and meetings, parents in the district will join for a virtual meeting Monday night to establish bylaws and committees for a districtwide special education parent-teacher association. The group will formally be chartered at a second meeting to follow a few weeks later.
Graber said any parents interested in joining the organization or learning more about its plans can join the Monday meeting at 7 p.m. Any parent or community member, not just those with special education students, can join. Meeting details are available on the district website.
Graber said she hopes the new organization can serve as a platform for parents to connect with one another and to offer support as they manage the challenges of navigating the complex laws and regulations of the special education system. She also wants it to help bridge divides between special education and general education students and families, destigmatizing the needs of special education families and ensuring all students can access district events.
“The most important piece of having this in place is to further inclusion,” Graber said in a recent interview.
She said dozens of people turned out for an informational meeting in February, sharing stories about their experiences in the district. Around 11 percent of Niskayuna’s students receive special education services, or nearly 500 students, according to 2019 state enrollment data. Graber said supporting parents will go a long way in supporting students too.
“When parents feel welcome, students feel welcome,” she said. “There’s a large percentage of parents whose kids get services where they really feel they are on the outside.”
The new organization will be open to all parents and teachers in the district and will seek to foster partnerships with existing PTA groups in the district’s schools. It will also serve as a resource to help other groups in the district consider the needs of special education families when planning events and programs, and connect parents to administrators.
Superintendent Cosimo Tangorra Jr. said he hoped the new organization would in time help the district improve how it manages the special education program.
“For so long [special education has] been a separate entity to itself, and I’m hoping as a result of this effort it becomes less so, that there isn’t a mystique and that everyone understands special education,” Tangorra said. “I can’t think of a detriment to have a special organization for parents to get together to learn from one another.”
Guilderland, Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake, North Colonie and South Colonie school districts all have similar special education organizations, said Geri LeHane, the regional director of the state PTA, which is helping formalize the new chapter in Niskayuna.
Mahar said the parent group seemed like a logical thing to have, noting that parents of new students enter an entirely unknown world, while the parents of older students have years of direct experience working in the district’s special education program.
“Coming in and being brand new, there is a lot information,” Mahar said. “It was the first time I had ever heard these words or terms or ideas, and I didn’t know what was appropriate for my child, what would be too much, what he deserved or needed to succeed.”
She said she developed friends and connections among other special education families but that a formal organization would make it that much easier to form those connections.
DiPasquale, who participated in a similar PTA organization in the downstate district she relocated from in January, said the group could host speakers, develop information materials for parents, offer connections to local activities and other services. Just having parents to talk to about different activities in the region for kids with special needs can be valuable, she said.
DiPasquale has three children in the district – her fourth-grader and twins in second grade – and she said the transition of her son’s special education services to Niskayuna went smoothly. After settling in, she said, she had just one question. “The only thing I said was next to ask was, ‘Do you have a special education PTA,’” she said. “That was the part that was really missing.”