The Special Education Parent Teacher Organization, which consists solely of parents of special needs students in the district, hopes to increase the stories available to young children that represent those with learning differences.
“One of our missions [for the SPED PTO] is … the foundation [of] self-advocacy [to] really begin with ensuring that every child can tell their story,” said Jen Heuson, the SPED PTO Community Park liaison. “[It’s] really difficult [for] young children going to the library [who] don’t see their stories reflected in the books that they find.”
More representation would benefit readers and also promote dialogue in schools. Expanding the libraries’ book collections by encompassing characters with different backgrounds is part of the district’s overall goal to promote diversity.“Having a more diverse set of books in our library and just having more diversity in the greater conversation just enhances the awareness of this [issue],” said SPED PTO Coordinator and PHS Liaison Joan Spindel. “People learn by reading or sharing books … it opens up a whole host of conversation, so [it leads to] greater community, greater collaboration, greater visibility and awareness around what different people are dealing with.”
Yet, members of the SPED PTO feel that their initiatives aren’t solely beneficial for special needs students.
“[The initiative] can really be [for] a whole gamut of experiences, whether that’s racial diversity or gender identity, but it also includes different [learning] abilities. In order for [children] to successfully build a [positive] idea of themselves, they need to be able to have access to stories of other people who are like them,” Heuson said.
The project is in its early stages as members of the SPED PTO begin to engage in conversation with teachers and libraries to determine how to better diversify the four elementary school book collections. The PTO hopes to purchase between 12 to 20 books, and one of its present goals is to survey community members, including parents, district faculty, and staff, for recommended books.
Similarly, at PHS, others, in addition to the SPED PTO, seek to aid special education students. The school currently supports them in many ways, such as availability of smaller resource classes, an autism program, and teachers and counselors.
Furthermore, several members of the Princeton community, including Spindel and PHS psychologist Jennifer Kuntz, have been working to create a grant for special ed students. This grant, funded by the Princeton Education Foundation, consists of three self-advocacy workshops led by Megan Hayden, who conducted workshops the previous year helping special ed students learn to express themselves in order to provide for their needs.
“In a classroom setting, [self-advocacy] might mean [knowing] how to ask for accommodations they might need… [so that] they’re vocalizing their needs and speaking up for themselves,” Kuntz said.
The grant will support older students in special education in building their own futures. This opportunity is open to all students who wish to fully understand their Individualized Education Plans since Kuntz believes it provides them with the necessary skills outside of high school.
“One of the reasons we’re focusing on this is because when students go off to college, [their] IEP doesn’t follow them,” Kuntz said. “They can be eligible for some kind of disabilities accommodation plan, but [unlike in elementary, middle, and high school], at the college level the students have to advocate [for themselves].”
In future years, advocacy for special ed students within the elementary, middle, and high school is expected to strengthen as awareness and funds for the projects increase.