“These are our children’s lives, and we need to advocate for them to receive the appropriate education they deserve.”

Cathy Roccia-Meier, like so many parents with children in the special education system, speaks as a passionate education advocate. Since 2003, she and other School District parents have been putting much passion and energy into resurrecting the Philadelphia Right to Education Task Force as a vehicle for organizing “whoever we need to bring together to help our children succeed.”

Roccia-Meier is chair of the parent-led group, which works with District staff, advocacy groups, government agencies, teachers, and other service providers to ensure the right of each student to a “free and appropriate education.”

“We try to find out what the systemic problems are and make changes,” she explained.

Though it had been dormant for several years, the Philadelphia Task Force dates back to 1972. It grew out of a lawsuit brought by the ARC of Pennsylvania, a disability rights organization, against the state over the failure to provide any real education for children with mental retardation in Pennsylvania.

The result of the suit was the federal “Right to Education Consent Decree of 1972.” Still in effect today, it ordered the establishment of a Local Task Force in each of the 29 “Intermediate Units” in Pennsylvania (the Philadelphia School District is the Intermediate Unit providing special education in the city).

These Local Task Forces are required to be led by a parent-consumer majority. Local school districts are mandated to provide the Task Forces with both information and supports to further their mission of quality education for children with disabilities.

The Philadelphia Task Force now reaches hundreds of area parents through monthly membership meetings, a newsletter, a website (www.philadelphialtf.org), public forums on topics like applying to high school, and question-and-answer sessions with District officials.

Through these sessions and materials, parents learn about their rights and how to navigate the system, while identifying problems that need attention.

“This is a group in the forefront of educating themselves. When we go to trainings, they’re there,” said Brenda Taylor, who oversees special education for the School District as director of the Office of Specialized Services.

“They really do a phenomenal job of helping parents understand what the District responsibility is, what the program’s responsibilities are, and how they can support their children both in school and at home,” Taylor said.

One big issue where the Task Force has made strides, through working with the Office of Specialized Services, is improving District services to students with autism. Roccia-Meier noted that it’s a disability affecting one out of every 166 children.

“We’ve asked for revised curriculum, more supports for teachers, more training for teachers, and a larger continuum of services,” she said. “We believe they’re going to be receptive to that.”

While happy about this progress, Roccia-Meier sees it as just a beginning. She’s hopeful the Task Force can develop more committees as it grows: “That’s just one disability group, and we’re here to advocate for all children,” she said.

Now, the School District’s budget situation and cutbacks affecting special education students are at the top of the Task Force’s agenda. They are joining with other parents in speaking out against overcrowded classes and cuts in areas like transportation.

“We’re trying to follow up on what specifically these cuts are going to look like and how it’s going to affect everything,” she stated. “But we’re not happy with any budget cuts.”

Brenda Taylor described the District’s relationship with the Task Force as “a wonderful partnership” but also observed, “We’ve had our challenges.”

“They do push back on me at times and I do push back on them at times, and then we come back to the table and try to reach a happy medium,” Taylor added.

Roccia-Meier said that her work and the participation of parents on the Task Force will continue because it is motivated by “a sense of justice.”

Parents involved in the Task Force typically “have a child with an individual issue,” she explained. “They came in and solved their child’s problem and then saw others struggling and wanted to help.”

Through the Task Force, she added, “we have a voice – and we have the federal mandate that gives us a lot more power than typical organizations. We want to use this to make the changes that we can make.”

Task Force meetings are open to all parents of students with special needs and other concerned individuals. For more information, call 215-400-5151 or e-mail info@philadelphialtf.org.

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