Being the parent of a special needs kid can be a lonely, isolating job that doesn’t leave a lot of time for making connections at the child’s school.
“Our population of parents are tired,” said Sue Leusner, mother of 10-year-old Bode, a fourth-grader with autism who attends Tacoma’s Skyline Elementary. “They have a lot invested in their kids’ education.”
When her son started school in a special classroom for autistic kids at Tacoma’s Franklin Elementary six years ago, Leusner often picked him up from school early to take him to therapy appointments.
“I didn’t know of any other programs in the district,” she said. “I had no connections with other parents. In his whole year at Franklin, I met one parent.”
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Now, Leusner is working with other parents of special needs kids in Tacoma to form the Tacoma Special Needs PTA. The group is scheduled to hold its charter meeting Thursday.
The organization, which will be affiliated with the state PTA, is designed to be a community of parents and educators who will work together to enrich the educational experience for kids with disabilities.
Unlike typical school-based PTAs, the special needs group is for families across the city. It is open to parents of special needs children from preschool through age 21 who attend any kind of school in Tacoma: traditional public schools, charter schools, private schools or home school.
Similar groups have been started around the state, including in Federal Way and Bellevue.
Bode’s school story is like those of many kids in special education — full of ups and downs. A year of great progress, followed by one of setbacks. The summer after Bode’s kindergarten year at Franklin, Leusner’s family moved to Mercer Island in search of the right school for him.
“We wanted him to have more exposure to his typically developing peers,” Leusner said.
Then she heard about Grant Center for the Expressive Arts, a Tacoma school district elementary school with a program that mixed kids with autism and neurotypical kids. He made great progress the first year, but the next year proved difficult. A move to Skyline was successful, but there have been some bumps in the road.
In May, Skyline parents heard about changes coming to their children’s program for the current school year.
“We all went nuts,” Leusner said.
Our population of parents are tired. They have a lot invested in their kids’ education
Sue Leusner, who is helping launch the Tacoma Special Needs PTA
District officials said the changes were designed in conjunction with a shift in special education that’s been taking place in Tacoma over the past several years.
“We are shifting to keep students at their neighborhood schools, providing the services they need within their school,” district administrator Jennifer Traufler, who oversees special education for Tacoma Public Schools, wrote in a memo.
The change in focus was recommended by a consultant hired by the district to analyze special education in Tacoma Public Schools. Throughout the nation, public education has been moving to a concept called “inclusion,” aimed at including special needs kids in general education classes when possible.
The model has both critics and proponents. Supporters say that, with support, special needs kids can succeed in mainstream classrooms. But critics argue that some kids are being mainstreamed before they’re ready and without the extra help they and their teachers need.
Leusner said Bode is enjoying learning at Skyline.
“The staff and teachers at Skyline are amazing,” she said. “The teachers are great. I don’t think they get enough credit.”
One of the aims of the Tacoma Special Needs PTA is to help support teachers.
The group’s Thursday meeting is designed to gather parents who are interested in becoming charter members. Membership costs $15 for an individual, $25 for a two-person annual membership. The group is raising funds to support scholarships for families who can’t afford to pay dues.
More than 25 people have already joined, and more are committed to signing up at the Thursday meeting, Leusner said. She said teachers have been asking about membership as well.
Leusner wants the Tacoma Special Needs PTA to help the school district communicate with parents — a task she says has proved difficult. The group also plans to host speakers and educational activities.
“Parents need to be networked,” Leusner said. “Parents need to find each other and use each other as a resource.”
The Tacoma Special Needs PTA will hold a charter meeting at 6:30 p.m. Thursday in the library at Jennie Reed Elementary School, 1802 S. 36th St. The group will elect officers, set rules and approve a budget. After the official vote, attendees will be asked to become charter members.
Email the group: firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you would like to donate to the organization, make checks payable to Tacoma Council PTA. You can send them to Tacoma Special Needs PTA at P.O. Box 6929, Tacoma WA, 98417.