Cooperation was the common denominator during a report to the Bedford School Committee by the chair of the Bedford Special Education Parent Advisory Council (SEPAC).
Erica Colbath emphasized “partnerships with the schools and community. Sometimes we have difficult conversations and a lot of learning going on, but we are always respectful with a positive goal in mind.”
A local SEPAC, required under state law, is both advisory and participatory. It not only connects and supports parents and caregivers but also advises the School Committee and professional staff on their behalf.
“We work with program administrators,” Colbath continued, particularly on the challenges inherent in transitioning from one school to another. SEPAC also works with other parent organizations and the Recreation Department. “Really, we partner with anyone in the community,” she said.
For example, Colbath noted that as part of efforts to enhance life skills, students with special needs had the opportunity not only to see a “sensory-friendly dress rehearsal” of “Frozen Jr.” at John Glenn Middle School but also to meet cast members on stage after the show.
“We worked with the theatre group and brainstormed,” Colbath said. “It was super successful. Maybe there are other opportunities like this beyond theatre.”
“It is an honor and a pleasure to work with this group,” said Director of Special Education Marianne Vines. “I feel like this is a true partnership and true collaboration.” Superintendent of Schools Philip Conrad said the group’s involvement helps the district meet the students’ needs, and he thanked the SEPAC board “for the cooperative relationship you have with Marianne.”
Colbath said specific discussions have focused on literacy, recess, and MCAS testing. Each theme has been addressed with school administrators and leaders, she said, “to address concerns and opportunities for communications and future actions.”
There’s a “live conversation” continuing about how to best “support some of our kids who struggle with recess,” and there have been “some great ideas of what we can implement in the upcoming year.” School staff members are “brainstorming” about ways children can engage voluntarily. “Some kids are happy just walking around,” she said, contrasting “interaction vs. observation.”
In the fall, Colbath said, she expects ongoing consideration about how to help all students best prepare for MCAS “to grow from leadership to wider community discussion.”
The council hosts monthly virtual meetings, and the Zoom platform “really has been helpful in increasing attendance and participation,” Colbath said. SEPAC also holds parent and caregiver “meetups” in person. She said the council board meets monthly with Vines and three times a year with the superintendent of schools.
Another SEPAC role is to publicize local inclusive activities, speakers, and events. Colbath referenced some recent successes: a talk by Brendan Mahan, executive function expert; a presentation on the same subject by Engaging Minds; and information from the Federation of Children with Special Needs on the difference between a 504 plan and an individual education plan.
She also applauded the “science corner” in the Lane School lobby, featuring interactive opportunities with some small animals. “We didn’t drive it but we have cooperated and benefited,” she said, as “kids can reset in the front lobby.”
Colbath also noted that SEPAC has completed a brochure, revamped its website, and is planning a survey “so people can share feedback that they may not be comfortable sharing verbally.”
“I’m continually amazed at all the things you’re doing and hitting on so many different cylinders,” said committee member Sheila Mehta-Green, a former SEPAC president. “I love that there’s continued focus and dialogue.” She also applauded Vines’ director’s newsletter, “a fantastic addition.”
Kim Howell, the School Committee’s new non-voting member representing military households, urged SEPAC to ensure Hanscom Air Force Base families are included.