GT in PTAs?  Include all special needs!

Advocacy remains critical to the survival and growth of gifted education.  Despite decades of research, and though gifted students exist in all populations, many states continue to neglect funding and accountability for educating gifted and talented learners.  National and state organizations for the gifted have brought about positive changes, but even in states with GT laws and funding in place, educators need parent support to maintain and improve services at the local level.

Parents are critical to gifted advocacy, but to advocate effectively, parents need to form groups, learn about gifted education practices, and partner with educators.  When starting a local nonprofit is not an option, is there another way to facilitate partnerships and advocacy?

For the past decade in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, parents in several school districts have worked in joint committees to help PTAs increase support for all special needs and learning differences – including both disability needs and gifted needs.  When strong PTAs are present, creating one of these combined committees can offer parent-school collaboration, awareness of gifted needs, and a recognizable presence for positive advocacy.

                History of PTA (Parent Teacher Association)

In 1897, two mothers began a movement to “eliminate threats that endangered children” (PTA.org).   After merging with the National Congress of Colored Parents and Teachers (NCCPT), the organization became the National PTA.  For some, the “PTA” name may conjure up images of bake sales, but the strength of PTA advocacy has improved public education and children’s health in numerous ways, including the creation of Kindergarten classes, improved child labor laws, improved public health services and immunization, lunch programs, improvements in school safety and juvenile justice, and the inclusion of arts in education (PTA.org).  National PTA prioritizes collaboration, diversity, and inclusion, and at all levels, PTA units advocate for the support and accountability needed for a free, appropriate education for every student, regardless of income.  To use the PTA name and resources, school PTA units must follow rules set at the National, State, and Council PTA levels.

                Special Education PTAs

In some areas of the country, the unique challenges of educating children with disabilities have led to the formation of Special Education PTAs, or SEPTAs.  SEPTAs include a wide range of disability needs, and all members share the goal of including disabilities in PTA advocacy and support.  Creating a dedicated PTA unit allows parents to prioritize specific goals, but it can also limit opportunities to increase disability awareness within campus PTAs.  Separate PTA units also require a reliable flow of volunteers to maintain nonprofit paperwork, to update Bylaws and Standing Rules, and to fill the board roles necessary to keep the PTA unit in good standing.  Parenting children with disabilities can be exhausting and all-encompassing, and not all school districts are able to maintain a separate SEPTA.

                SAGE (Special and Gifted Education)

In 2004, in response to requests for the opportunity to collaborate, the PTA Council in Plano, Texas formed a committee called “SAGE,” which stands for Special and Gifted Education.  Precedent existed for combining gifted needs with disability needs: the Council of Exceptional Children (CEC) was founded in 1922, and its advocacy includes both special education and gifted education.  CEC is a professional association for educators, however, and SAGE provided a unique, new way for parents and educators to partner and collaborate within existing PTA units to support all special needs and learning differences in public schools.  For gifted families, SAGE finally recognized gifted learning differences as an educational need.  National PTA includes Special Education in its support and advocacy, and it includes Gifted Education resources in its Special Education Toolkit (National PTA).

The SAGE concept has spread to additional Texas area PTA Councils, and its volunteers hope the vision will continue to grow!  In the meantime, any school or Council PTA nationwide can vote to add a SAGE position to its board – and it’s easy to get started.

Procedures and Approval

                Parents or educators interested in adding a SAGE committee to a PTA unit should identify a volunteer willing to serve on the PTA board for the entire school year.  Both parents and educators can serve.  Since few individuals have knowledge about all special needs in a school or district, the volunteer should be open to input from other parents and educators.  When a volunteer is ready, the board can follow PTA procedures to add SAGE as a new board position.  In Texas, for example, if the intent of the motion is clear, does not conflict with or repeat items in the bylaws, and follows Texas PTA procedures and guidelines, the board can vote to recommend the amendment, and general PTA membership can approve the change by majority vote (Texas PTA).

Is your PTA board reluctant to add another position?  Do board members need help understanding why SAGE is needed – and more importantly, why SAGE can benefit all students?

Benefits for Gifted Educators, Parents, and Students

Nonprofits draw strength from numbers, and through SAGE, parents and educators of students with all special needs can maximize their volunteer impact.  Combining forces allows for stronger committees, events, fundraisers, and publicity.  Additional benefits of SAGE for gifted education include:

Support for educators.  Is your gifted program staff stretched thin?  PTA committees can mobilize parents for volunteer tasks, saving planning time for educators.  PTAs can donate recess equipment, supplies, or professional development resources.  In districts where gifted specialists serve multiple schools, specialists are sometimes left out of usual PTA appreciation for educators; including gifted education in PTA committees can fill gaps and provide encouragement and volunteers.  When general education teachers, specialists, and administrators have the support required for students with special needs, they are better able to meet the needs of all students on campus.

Education for adults.  Increased awareness can increase empathy and inclusion for all students with differences.  Through SAGE, PTAs can partner with districts in hosting events for both parents and educators, and they may be able to seek approval for Continuing Education credits for teachers.  For the gifted area of SAGE, topics could include gifted characteristics, social-emotional needs, dealing with stress and anxiety, gifted underachievement, enrichment strategies, self-advocacy, and more.  To help parents become informed partners in supporting gifted services, a district can work with SAGE to facilitate “Gifted 101” workshops for parents.

Beliefs about the gifted.  For parents and educators of gifted students, the most significant benefit of SAGE may be the shift it can bring about in perceptions of the gifted.   When gifted education joins forces with Special Education, people ask: why is the “G” in SAGE?  What do gifted students have in common with students with disabilities?  Why should giftedness be considered a special need?  Answering these questions can increase awareness and lead to important conversations, support, and positive action.  SAGE volunteers see firsthand that “gifted students are different learners” and are “often misunderstood.”  One SAGE leader explains that “SAGE can help to shine a light” on gifted challenges “so they are not viewed in as much of a negative way.”

Inclusion of Twice-Exceptional.  Parents of gifted children with disabilities can feel isolated in both gifted support groups and disability support groups, especially when “dealing with ‘invisible’ disabilities, like processing disorders,” as observed by one SAGE volunteer.  As a public school district gifted specialist explains, “it is imperative to make sure that educators and parents are aware that many children are twice and thrice exceptional.”  Through involvement in SAGE, twice-exceptional families can feel fully included, and parents and educators can work with a single organization that supports and advocates for the full range of their students’ needs.

Support for services.  When funds for any educational services are at risk, it is important for parents to mobilize and to be heard.  PTA offers a powerful advocacy voice for public education, and it draws that power in part from membership numbers.  When gifted education is represented through SAGE, PTA legislative chairs can help monitor legislation and include gifted services in their advocacy, and more parents of children with learning differences see the benefits of joining PTAs.

Support for students with disabilities.  The above benefits focus on gifted education, but SAGE has even more benefits for families of children with disabilities.  Many parents of gifted children have friends or other family members who live with disability challenges, and SAGE allows these parents to support and advocate for disability needs while supporting the gifted needs of their own children.   SAGE disability support can include:

  • hosting disability awareness simulation programs for students and teachers
  • funding disability-accessible playground equipment
  • appreciation treats for Special Education teachers, dyslexia specialists, and other staff
  • advocating to increase accessibility during schoolwide events
  • advocating for playground fences to address wandering
  • building inclusive parent support communities
  • hosting meet and greet events with Special Education department leaders
  • donating sensory-friendly classroom equipment
  • bringing or promoting speakers to help parents understand Section 504 and the ARD process

…and many more.  Unlike the role of Treasurer or Parliamentarian, the role of a SAGE Chair is flexible and can be adapted to meet the needs of your campus.

                Advice for Success

                Are you ready to start SAGE in your school district?  Below are some tips based on successes (and challenges) shared by SAGE volunteers from five districts.

Use committees.  SAGE volunteers agree: committees can help ensure that all special needs are represented and consistently included in SAGE.  One volunteer advises, “target each group separately although invite all.”  Another volunteer recommends including both Special Education and gifted services in committee leadership.  As a committee grows, adding additional leadership roles can maintain consistent inclusion of all needs in SAGE.

Focus on shared needs.  While it’s important to raise awareness about specific diagnoses, it is still critical to remember the needs shared by all students.  In the Richardson ISD “Understanding Differences” program, for example, students are reminded that although students are different on the outside, they all have hearts and feelings on the inside.  Both disability needs and gifted needs can lead a student to feel that he or she does not belong.  Both extremes often require modifications to the general education curriculum in order for the student to learn in school, and both can be misunderstood by some educators, parents, and other students.  As one former SAGE chair also notes, “both groups may be bullied because of their differences.”  SAGE families and educators can work together to support schools in addressing social-emotional needs along with academic needs.

Maximize publicity.  When SAGE volunteers work hard on an event, low attendance is discouraging.  To expand the reach of SAGE, PTA Councils can add a SAGE Chair to their boards, and he or she can distribute SAGE news to district PTA Presidents and SAGE Chairs.  Council SAGE volunteers may also wish to build relationships with local professionals and organizations.  To increase support for gifted services specifically, parents can form a gifted committee within SAGE and can explore partnerships with local gifted support groups and GT Specialists.

Listen and learn.  SAGE volunteers recommend learning about the needs of the community.  Since challenges can differ from school to school and from district to district, volunteers need to learn “what your parents need from the group.”   SAGE volunteers can and should listen to educators, as well, and can use this knowledge to improve support.  By sharing and including perspectives of both parents and educators, SAGE can “help open lines of communication and bridge gaps.”

Ideas from campus parents can help SAGE grow, as well.  As one SAGE chair describes, “I had parents asking me if dyslexia would be included, vision services… with each question came a new group represented under our umbrella.”  To build partnerships, SAGE can meet with administrators for all special services and can ask “what SAGE can do for them.”  Another volunteer recommends seeking input from everyone within a school: “staff, principals, janitorial staff, and cafeteria workers.”

Be persistent.  When starting SAGE, volunteers may encounter “pushback from unexpected people/places… some parents are not as open as others.”  Experienced SAGE volunteers recommend respecting boundaries, but they advise leaders to “be persistent,” and not to “get discouraged immediately because it takes a LOT of time/effort to build a solid SAGE program.”

Advocate to include parents in district planning.  Parents are eager to support teachers, but they are also eager for partnerships and collaboration with school and district administrators.  When PTAs request that campus and district leaders include SAGE representatives in planning, the resulting collaboration can improve communication and may help prevent small challenges from becoming bigger ones.  A former High School PTA President explains, “the more that the district works hand in hand with SAGE, the greater benefit the district, parents, students and educators have.”

Schools and districts may wish to form a gifted advisory council or focus group to allow all stakeholders to provide feedback and input on improvements to services.  The Davidson Institute offers advice for educators on communicating with parents, and some of their tips can apply equally to educators working with parent groups:  they suggest working together to develop a plan for learning, maintaining contact to make sure the plan is working, offering support, and seeking out specialized training (Davidson, 2004).  SAGE committees can help open the door to request this communication.

Lead through positive examples.  To encourage SAGE volunteers, the Wylie ISD PTA Council has included a “SAGE Spotlight” in Council meetings:  “we would highlight one campus and something they were doing” for students with special needs, gifted needs, or for the educators of those students.  Several SAGE Committees maintain a social media presence to promote positive news and to raise awareness.

Help increase PTA memberships.  When PTA advocates for public education at any level, membership numbers count.  To ensure that SAGE is included within PTA, SAGE leaders will want to encourage all supporters to join their local PTA units.

                Words of Caution

Open minds, respect differences.  Without bad intentions, parents and educators of the gifted can damage partnerships with the language they use.  SAGE volunteers must take the time to become familiar with person-first language and sensitive subjects for families of children with special needs.  When advocating for gifted funding, avoid comparisons with funding for disability services.  While it’s true that gifted services do not receive enough funding, comparisons to Special Education funding can seem dismissive of the serious, lifelong impact of disability needs.  Given the differences in educational goals and anticipated outcomes, such comparisons can be both hurtful and counterproductive.

Build relationships.  Not all parents of children with disabilities initially understand why gifted children need services.  To make the SAGE collaboration work, gifted volunteers must build partnerships by continuously including, supporting, and partnering with parents who focus on disability needs.  When this did not happen in a district for a period of time, a parent with disability needs reflected, “in my experience I don’t see the two joining [forces] in any area …on this journey with special needs, gifted has never been a part of it.  It is hard for me to even relate.”  To address this, she suggests creating publicity and events “that show unity” within SAGE.  Though gifted needs may represent a quiet crisis nationwide, for SAGE partnerships to succeed, it is critical for parents of the gifted to also advocate for and support disability needs.

Prepare for positive leadership.  In educating children with differences, misunderstandings and setbacks are inevitable.  Stress levels rise for all involved, and not all parents exercise self-restraint when discussing the need for improvement.  SAGE leaders should be prepared to set expectations for constructive communication, and they may need to moderate group discussions and social media posts to ensure that bridges are built and not burned.  Educators can help by creating opportunities for parent group collaboration that promote positive support and advocacy.

                Public Education for All

The mission of PTA is “every child. one voice.”  For all of us who believe in the importance of public education, advocacy for vulnerable populations is becoming more and more critical.  To ensure that these students do not fall through the cracks of an already strained public education system, they “need advocates and people concerned with how they are functioning in the district.”  By representing special needs and learning differences in PTA committees, and by including gifted needs among those differences, parents and educators can help PTA to include the ability needs of every student in the PTA advocacy voice.

Though educators and parents already work together in many wonderful ways, SAGE offers a strong, unique, and necessary opportunity to support one another in achieving best practices for the education of all students.  We hope you will join us.

References

Interview credits:  Many thanks to Tina J. Puckett, Alicia Post, Dragana Pavlesic, Liz Gluckman, Sandra Colston, Christina Rigby, Jennifer Brown, and Caroline Winfield for their assistance, their willingness to be interviewed about SAGE, and their incredible work for students with all special needs and learning differences.

Council for Exceptional Children.  CEC Milestones.  Web.  https://www.cec.sped.org/About-Us/CEC-Milestones

Davidson Institute for Talent Development (2004).  The teacher-parent connection: tips for working with the parents of a gifted student.  Educators Guild Newsletter, 1(3). Web. https://www.davidsongifted.org/Search-Database/entry/A10319

National PTA (Parent Teacher Association).  History.  https://www.pta.org/home/About-National-Parent-Teacher-Association/Mission-Values/National-PTA-History

National PTA (Parent Teacher Association).  Special Education Toolkit.  https://www.pta.org/home/family-resources/Special-Education-Toolkit

Texas PTA (Parent Teacher Association).  Adopting or Amending Standing Rules. http://www.txpta.org/standing-rules

 

About the Author: 

Emily VR is a graduate of Harvard Law School.  Her articles have appeared in the Gifted Education Review, the WeAreGifted2 blog, Tall Poppies magazine, and The Fissure Blog from NuMinds Enrichment.  She is a supporter of public education, of meeting disability needs and gifted needs, and of diversity in gifted education.  She is currently serving on the board of the RISD Council of PTAs as SAGE Chair (Special and Gifted Education), and she completed the Graduate Certificate in Gifted Education through the University of North Texas.

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