NORTH SMITHFIELD – The North Smithfield School District’s Special Education Local Advisory Committee has a new board, with a dedicated group of parents now bringing fresh energy and focus to the mission of advocating on behalf of students in need of special education services.
“In the ten years that I’ve been here, we haven’t had a truly active SELAC,” said Director of Pupil Services Suzanne Rathbun as she introduced the board to members of the School Committee. “We haven’t really had parents who were willing to just take the ball and run with it. This year, we have three parents that have actively gotten involved.”
According to state law, every town in Rhode Island should have an advisory committee on special education, but the organization is expected to be led by parents, leaving districts dependent on volunteers to step forward.
Now, town parents Nicole Lavoie will serve as chairperson with Sarah Brenneman as co-chairperson of North Smithfield SELAC, working collaboratively with district personnel and administration to advocate for programming and services appropriate for children with diverse needs. Elyse Baumann will serve as treasurer, and the group is actively seeking a secretary.
Speaking before the committee this month, Lavoie noted that the three came together after realizing they all had some level of experience in special education advocacy.
“We just decided we needed to fill the gap in this district, and take all of our shared knowledge, and help other families,” she said.
Over the summer, the trio put together documentation and communications to help get this school year running, along with a brochure explaining their role in the district. They have already had a presence at several town-based events, such as Kid Fest in June, and plan to be at all of the district’s back to school, open house and orientation events.
The mission, Lavoie noted, is to facilitate, “collaboration and communication between students, parents, school district and community in order to promote quality and inclusivity for all children receiving special education services within the North Smithfield School District.”
“That’s really the key to driving this,” said Lavoie. “We’re really trying to advocate for the students.”
The group is expected to meet at least quarterly with parents, students and educators; communicate with the Rhode Island Department of Education in developing evaluation plans and reporting on data; and provide direct input to school district leaders about policies, programs, practices and services that have an impact on students with disabilities and their families. Those meetings have tentatively been scheduled for September 12, December 12, March 12 and June 11 in the 2023/2024 school year, from 6:30 – 7:30 p.m. in the NSHS library.
Supt. Michael St Jean noted that reactivating SELAC was one of the district’s goals this year.
“Thank you for making my job easier,” St. Jean said.
School Committee Vice Chairperson Jean Meo noted that she and her husband were involved with the program some 40 years ago.
“I would just like to congratulate all of you because this is a real, important undertaking,” Meo said. “The special education program has come such a long way. But still, we, as parents, have to be our children’s first and best advocate.”
As they move forward, the SELAC group plans to help to shape school district policy, and to share resources with parents who can use them.
“We encourage people to come forward and work with us,” Lavoie said.