Parents’ Pride: Inspiration, Advocacy and Action for Children with Learning Differences
As school opened this fall, Lawrence School launched a new Parents’ Pride association, an organization led by parent volunteers, aimed at creating opportunities for parent education and connection. The first formal Parents’ Pride event occurred on the first day of school, when parents gathered at both campuses to celebrate their kids and gather strength from one another as they make the transition to a new school year.
This name and image for our parent organization was the brain child of our own Doug Hamilton, who has been at Lawrence for almost twenty years and now, as our Admissions Director, works directly with moms and dads who are searching for the right kind of educational experience for their children.
Parents’ Pride is an obvious play on the term ‘lion’s pride’. A lion – and a pride of lions – is an apt image for our parents group. In fact, it reflects parents of children with learning differences all across the country, for there are no stronger advocates for children than the mothers of these cubs who struggle to learn in school. No offense to dads – they are often in the hunt for the right services – but it has been and is still the moms who have overwhelmingly moved our local, state and national understanding and recognition of these children and their needs.
The truth is, this entire profession of special education – and most of the three hundred plus special-purpose schools across the country that work with children who have learning differences – was founded, propelled or sustained by parents. Parents who watched their children enter first grade with high hopes and expectations, only to have dreams dashed and spirits discouraged by experiences in school. Parents who knew that there needed to be more options for our children than the one-size-fits-all general education curriculum found in most public, private and parochial schools.
Back in the ‘60s, it was parents who started the first special purpose independent schools. It was parents who lobbied educators and psychologists, parents who pushed pediatricians and legislators, and parents who raised money to start after-school and summer tutorial services.
In the ‘70s, parents were the ones who finally beat down the doors of lawmakers in Washington D.C., and passed the first version of Public Law 94142, now called IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act). This legislation was influenced by several state Departments of Education which, in turn, were influenced by strong parent advocacy groups often associated with independent schools offering tutorial services, summer programs, and alternative year-round programs to smart kids who were underachieving and dropping out of their local schools.
During the ‘70s and ‘80s, there were only a handful of independent schools for students with learning differences like dyslexia and ADD. By the middle ‘90s, there were about 200 such schools, and now there are over 300. Indeed, special purpose schools for students with learning differences and twice-exceptional students (high IQ but low achievement) are the third fastest growing sector of the educational industry, just behind home schooling and charter schools.
In 2004, the International Dyslexia Association published a special theme journal about LD private schools and their founders, noting the extraordinary impact this small group of schools has had on public education in the United States. I, in turn, would give the credit for this high impact to the parents who were the inspiration, perspiration and motivation behind this phenomenon.
Just this week, I was on the telephone with a staff member from a school in New York founded in 1984 by a small band of parents dissatisfied with the services offered at other independent schools. The school started with five students, grew to a small elementary school throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, and now is expanding to a high school with a total enrollment of about 500.
Similarly, former Lawrence teacher Brad Rogers, who now heads the GOW school in new York, left Lawrence and became the founding headmaster of the Odyssey School in Baltimore – again, founded by parents who were on a waiting list for another private school in the Baltimore area with no openings. The situation is repeated across the country, and across the last four decades.
It is astounding to think about how these parents have motivated and educated our society! Historically and currently, what parents have accomplished is nothing less than a transformation of expectations in care and education for all children.
These amazing parents have inspired special education laws which have changed the ways our schools do business; and while there are still significant funding and programming challenges, the impact of these parents and the legacy they have handed down to all of society is invaluable.
At Lawrence, we have two wonderful volunteer leaders for our Parents’ Pride association. One of them, Lower School parent Diane Moser, opened a meeting last week by describing herself and her fellow parents:
“I’ve thought a lot about us, Lawrence School parents, since I became involved with Parents’ Pride last spring, and I’ve come to realize that, though we are all very different people, we all share one very important characteristic. We are people of action. We are people who make things better, make things work, get things done. If we were not, our children would be at their previous schools in situations that were not working for them. We would not be here together at Lawrence School.
“We are not hand-wringers and shoulder-shruggers. We do not sit back and wait for someone else to make it right or get it done. We assume responsibility, we seek solutions, we invest of ourselves, we make sacrifices, and we find a way to make things work. I knew this about us, but it is proven again and again as I reach out and ask people to become coordinators of the many events and activities that happen here at school. As I’ve been making calls and sending emails and holding meetings this fall asking for help, there has been a resounding, ‘Yes, I will do that. I can make that happen!’ and even, ‘Thank you for letting me do this!’ in response. We are people of action, and I am honored to be here with you. I can only imagine where we can go together and what we can achieve!”
At Lawrence, with the help of our intrepid staff, with careful thinking and planning, we are beginning to acknowledge the enormous contributions our parents make, and the challenges they face bringing these children through school to adulthood.
We are grateful to these parents, past and present, and we are mindful of our obligation to all our children and to the health of public discourse, reflected in the vision statement of Lawrence School: One day, all students who learn differently will have the opportunity, encouragement and resources to fulfill their potential and benefit society.
We are mindful of our obligation to increase our understanding of the importance of diversity and that we must move as a society beyond honoring ethnicity, gender and the other protected classes in law to honoring the way individuals think, learn and solve problems. This diversity will give us the necessary inventiveness, and intellectual firepower to compete and cooperate in a global economy with planet-sized problems.
At Lawrence, just like so many other schools across the country, we have been founded and sustained by parents and educators for whom these issues are excruciatingly personal. We have tapped in to the strength, spirit and the determination of a pride of lions – and I can think of no better place to be as we stand united in a quest to collaboratively advance the field of education.