April 26, 2007 — Vol. 42, No. 37
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PRIDE helps disabled get an equal education

Brian Mickelson

When discussing the education of children with cognitive and mental disabilities, one significant problem inevitably arises — how do you ensure that they receive the same learning opportunities as non-disabled children, especially in public school systems?

According to Charlotte “Dee” Spinkston, founder and executive director of Urban Partnership Resources and Information on Disability and Education (Urban PRIDE), one of the problems is identifying that a child actually has a disability.

“Disability is really an invisible issue, particularly in communities of color,” she said. “Unless there’s a visible disability — like a kid in a wheelchair, or children who are blind or deaf — it’s very hard to identify someone with a disability. For the purposes of special education, things that are invisible can still be disabilities, whether they’re neurological or emotional or behavioral.”

Spinkston founded the nonprofit Urban PRIDE in 2000 around the time that her brother, who is disabled, was working with their mother trying to obtain services. Experiencing their difficult search firsthand made her realize that families of disabled children needed an organization where they could go to for essential information, services and support.

Funded partially by an incubator grant from The Boston Foundation, Urban PRIDE serves individuals from childhood up to the age of 26, many of whom live in Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan. The group is dedicated to improving the availability of and access to culturally responsive support.

“We provide information through our newsletter and Web site, but the vast majority of the information we provide is actually one-on-one with families,” Spinkston said. “We spend a lot of time with families — reviewing materials, writing letters for them and providing training in various locations around the community on specific areas related to the law, whether its about inclusion, technology or understanding one’s rights under the law.”

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education (IDEA) Act, disabled children are guaranteed “a free, appropriate public education“ within their individualized educational program (IEP) that distinguishes needs in the least restrictive environment. The act requires that public schools provide necessary learning aids, testing modifications and other educational accommodations.

The IEP is a written document developed for each public school child who has been deemed eligible for special education. Created and maintained through collaboration between parents, special education teachers, a qualified school representative and others, the IEP is reviewed annually and provides the blueprint for educating an individual child.

It contains information about the child’s strengths and needs, the extent to which a child will not participate in regular class and school activities, and measurable goals to attain.

As a relatively small organization without a large advertising budget, Urban PRIDE has been able to build relationships with other community organizations that assist families, such as after-school programs and health clinics.

“Referrals are really the only way to get information to a very wide variety of families who may not have Urban PRIDE as their first point of contact,” Spinkston said. “That’s also one of the reasons why about three years ago we began doing more work directly with community organizations that were increasingly getting kids in their programs who were on IEPs. Many of the programs had goals like helping kids pass the MCAS, but when they get a sixth-grader who reads at a third-grade level because he has an IEP [and they don’t know how to proceed], we know how to help that kid pass the MCAS at his grade level.”

That’s why creating an IEP early on is so important for every disabled child’s development. To help parents be as involved in the process as possible, Urban PRIDE holds a monthly training series at Dudley Library on Warren Street in Roxbury, and it also offers to write letters and make phone calls to schools in an effort to advocate for the best possible education.

“We did a yearlong series of trainings here at the foundation with a broad range of out-of-school program staff who came every month and learned a lot about what a disability is — how to modify or accommodate kids, looking at behavior and learning strategies, and understanding what an IEP is,” Spinkston said.

“What families need to know is, even if you don’t have an educational advocate, you should bring someone who you know and you trust to your child’s meeting, someone who can serve as your eyes and ears and who is willing to ask the questions that you might be too nervous to ask until someone gives them answers.”

The Institute for Community Inclusion, an organization at the University of Massachusetts-Boston that advocates for people with disabilities, has been collaborating with Urban PRIDE by providing training and technical assistance around issues relating to disabilities. More help has come from the University of Massachusetts Medical School and Eunice Kennedy Shriver Center, who have been sending interns through the Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental Disabilities (LEND) program to work at Urban PRIDE and experience what it’s like to serve children with disabilities.

“The interns from the LEND Program are young professionals just entering the disability field who want some hands-on experience working in disability organizations in a multicultural community,” Spinkston said.

Part of what she tries to impart to the interns is the importance of including older children with disabilities in planning their own educational plans.

“Kids ages 15-22 should be a lot more involved in attending their IEP meetings and providing suggestions to the IEP team regarding things they want to work on, and that’s not happening,” she said. “It’s about planning for the future and using the special education process to get kids from where they are to where it is they want to be once they leave school.”

Urban PRIDE will be holding its NAACP Transition Meeting at the James P. Timilty Middle School in Roxbury on May 5, which will outline transition services intended to promote a successful transition from high school to postsecondary education or employment.

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