How a Pennsylvania Grassroots Organization Helps Special Education Students Get the Services They Need

In 2013, Rob Marshall started thinking about the community service project he needed to complete as part of his divinity degree. He knew he wanted to do something that could transform his community.

He didn’t have to look too far to find it.

Marshall had been working with children at his church in Coatesville, Pennsylvania. And he noticed they weren’t always where they should be academically.

“You think, ‘Well maybe they should be reading at a different level than they are,’” he explains. “And [I] started realizing some challenges that we had in the education system.”

That’s where the idea for Citizens Who Seek Educational Equity came from. The group is also known as Citizens Who S.E.E.

Creating a Community of Advocates

Citizens Who S.E.E. is a grassroots organization. It’s completely made up of community volunteers. These volunteers serve as advocates for families of students in the Coatesville Area School District.

The board consists of a roster of people who have a lot of experience working in education and disability rights.

Take Monica McHale-Small, PhD, vice chair of Citizens Who S.E.E. She has more than 25 years of experience in education and is an administrator in a nearby school district. She’s also a founding member of the Pennsylvania Dyslexia Literacy Coalition.

McHale-Small co-leads volunteer training. This training includes the basics of law. They also go over annotated IEPs and evaluations.

They don’t expect volunteers to be experts, though. “More than anything,” she says, “what I try to stress in the training [is that] this is about supporting the family to find their voice and to be able to articulate what they want for their child.”

Helping All Families Find Their Voice

According to McHale-Small, one of Coatesville’s strengths is how accepting the community is of diversity. Still, some families who seek help from the organization face added obstacles when dealing with schools. And she notes how crucial it is to make sure these families get the unique support they need.

In March 2016, Citizens Who S.E.E. trained their first group of Spanish-speaking advocates. McHale-Small says that for the growing number of Latino families in their community, there are many issues at play. Language is part of it. But there also seems to be more stigma around learning differences in that community, she says.

“[We have to] think about what this message is in the context of this family, and we have to be a little more sensitive about that.”

The Coatesville community seems to be catching on to the organization’s thoughtful approach. In the 18 months since the group started, Citizens Who S.E.E. has already worked with close to 45 families. Those families found them simply through word of mouth.

One family in particular stands out in McHale-Small’s mind. That’s because in this case it was the student herself, high-schooler Lanayja Mason, who reached out to Citizens Who S.E.E. She also gathered all of her own school records for review.

It was clear to McHale-Small that Mason had reading issues that weren’t being addressed. So a Citizens Who S.E.E. advocate—a retired school psychologist—helped the Mason family work with the school.

Mason’s services are now more appropriate for her identified disability. She’s also working towards certification as a childcare worker through her high school’s vocational education program.

Building Successful Parent-School Relationships

Citizens Who S.E.E. counsels parents on how to request an IEP meeting or ask for appropriate services. And they’ve been successful at helping parents and schools work together.

The group has the support of the superintendent of schools. Marshall and McHale-Small agree that this good relationship contributes to their success.

According to Marshall, another key to their success is that Citizens Who S.E.E. is always respectful of school staff.

“We will never be adversarial in a meeting,” Marshall says. He adds that everyone they work with—from the parents to the advocates to the school—knows that being confrontational or disrespectful doesn’t have a place in meetings with the school.

This understanding is a big part of what makes Citizens Who S.E.E. so effective. Everyone benefits. And the most positive impact, Marshall says, is the one on the kids they’re all working to help.

“You go through all the frustrations. But then at the end of the day, you see the kids and the smile on their face. They’re no longer angry about having to go to class. That’s what brings joy to your heart. Nothing can replace that.”

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About the author

About the author

Amanda Morin is the author of “The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education” and the former director of thought leadership at Understood. As an expert and writer, she helped build Understood from its earliest days.