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Story Telling, Emergence and Power: How a Small Group of Parents Brought Change to a School System


The healing that can grow out of the simple act of telling our stories is often quite remarkable. ~ Susan Wittig Albert

We kicked off this month’s theme on town planning and community engagement using collaborative whole system methods with Tom’s description of an Ontario Local Health Integration Network that seeks to achieve greater integration of health care across an entire region. Next, Rick shared how helped a town achieve a breakthrough in decision making over a contentious issue—whether to build a new school—using a collaborative whole system approach. My contribution concerns another contentious issue involving town schools—special education, specifically the implementation of Individualized Educational Plans (IEP). Implementation of IEP’s can unintentionally be undermined by a number of causes including discretionary practices, the choices made by teachers, administrators, and specialists as they implement the IEP.  In this post I discuss how story-based methods of collaborative inquiry helped a small parent group discover, shape, and take action on their concerns about IEP implementation.

The Power of One Voice to Surface an Issue
Have you ever felt disheartened and alone because you had a problem you didn’t know how to solve? That was me when my son was in 9th grade and struggling in school because of learning disabilities.

Despite advice from classroom teachers, special needs teachers, school counselors and psychologists, it still wasn’t enough. I was tired, frustrated, and didn’t know what to do.

And then one day I read an e-mail from a mother just like me. Her story, posted on the listserve of my town’s Special Education Parent Advisory Council (SpedPAC) one August, caught my attention because she, too, was frustrated and tired, and wanted to organize a meeting for interested parents. The issue she identified as a problem was “discretionary practices” which was. I responded and said I’d not only come, I’d volunteer my services as a consultant and help her plan the meeting.

A few days later we met, shared our stories and the stresses of navigating the complex system of teachers and service providers for our special needs children. We felt like case managers for our children in response to a fragmented and ambiguous policies, procedures, and practices.
United by our frustration, we hoped talking to other parents might help. When I shared how I help people solve seemingly unsolvable problems with stories about their experiences, my new partner enthusiastically supported this approach.

But before the parent meeting could take place, my new partner called to tell me she had received an e-mail from our town’s SpedPAC chair wanting to know what our project was about, and expressing concern about it stirring up conflict with the school department. This was surprising to us; we assumed the SpedPAC would be supportive of our efforts to learn more about parents concerns.

The Power of Two Voices and an Ally
To address the concern expressed by the SpedPAC chair, we met with him over coffee. When the three of us shared details about our children’s disabilities and the challenges we had experienced with the school system, we discovered some similarities. We not only all had teenagers, but all three of us had encountered difficulties in getting our children’s IEP’s implemented as written. According to the SpedPAC chair, this was a frequent parent complaint, and one he encountered in his work as a child advocate as well.

His told us that until 2 years ago, the SpedPAC had an adversarial relationship with senior administrators of the school system’s special education department. The chair had worked hard to improve the relationship, and didn’t want it threatened if parents who came to our meeting got stirred up and decided to take action.

At the same time, he acknowledged that dealing with the special education administrators was challenging. Compared to their counterparts in neighboring towns, they had a reputation for being defensive, he said. He admitted that at times he felt tired and disillusioned.

We reassured him that we did not intend to be perceived as adversarial by the SpedPAC or the school system. We simply wanted parents to share their stories, so we could find out what their concerns were. We didn’t know enough to be able to predict where this might lead; however, our goal was to proceed in a collaborative way. Would the SpedPAC be willing to consider sponsoring our project as a parent study group? After all, we said, the SpedPAC’s purpose was to be an advocate for parents. The chair, sounding relieved by our approach, agreed to discuss our project with the SpedPAC board and invited us to the next SpedPAC meeting to talk about the project.

The Power of Sharing Stories in a Small Group

I don’t know any family that doesn’t have a story somewhere. ~Orlando Bloom

On the night of the parent meeting in late September, about 8 parents arrived, some alone, some with their spouse or a friend. After a welcome and introductions, we asked parents to share their stories, while I recorded a summary of each story on large pieces of paper posted on the wall.
The stories were moving and disturbing. Some were sad; others angering, a few were almost comedic. In each case, parents said they encountered frustrating inconsistencies in how their child’s Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) was implemented. What was written in the plan was not necessarily being carried out.

One parent remarked that the school system seemed to be able to let itself off the hook for the impact of choices made by individual teachers, administrators, and other school personnel through the use of discretionary practices.

Other parents complained that it was difficult to get specific information about the services their child actually received in order to determine their child’s progress. A few parents said they felt they were being intimidated, such as one couple with a 5th grade son. When their very shy, socially awkward son brought a butter knife to school in his backpack to scare off a persistent bully, the school called the police, and made it condition of their son being allowed back in school to undergo a psychiatric evaluation and be temporary placed in a school for children with severe psychiatric disturbances for observation.

This process took weeks, and was extremely traumatic to their son. Despite repeated entreaties to school authorities and the police that their son was very shy and had trouble communicating, but had never been violent, the school treated their son as potentially having a serious psychological problem that made him a possible danger to others. The parents felt they not only had no power to influence how the school system responded, but that their credibility as psychologically stable, responsible parents was being questioned.

At the end of the evening, the group members felt relieved to realize that they were not alone, but disturbed by they had learned. What could be done to change things? Was change even possible?

The group agreed to meet a second time to review what we had learned at the first meeting, and explore ideas about what, if anything, we’d like to do. I informed the group of the upcoming SpedPAC meeting and the possibility that the SpedPAC would sponsor us as a parent study group, which would lend us some credibility. The group gave my partner and me permission to share a summary of our first parent meeting at the SpedPAC meeting.

The Power of Widening the Circle and Winning Sponsorship
After the parent meeting, I typed up the stories, and reviewed them with my partner. We discussed the themes we heard, and tried to prioritize them. We felt overwhelmed by what we had learned, but knowing that others shared our challenges, some even worse than our own, strengthened our commitment to work together with other parents to discover possible solutions.

We knew that what we heard from other parents suggested the need to take action, but we weren’t sure exactly what, since there initially seemed to be many concerns. In the meantime, what would we say at the SpedPAC meeting with the director of special education in the room? How would we describe what we were up to, and what we had heard from other parents, without triggering that defensiveness we had heard about?

To help us prepare, we turned to SpedPAC chair, sharing what we had learned from the other parents, and asking for his advice about how to describe our project at the meeting. He informed us that he had discussed our project with the SpedPAC board and the board had agreed to formally sponsor our project. This would make our project a formally sanction SpedPAC initiative.

The SpedPAC chair was concerned but not surprised to hear what parents had said. The challenge would be to frame our project as helpful, rather than threatening, to administrators of special education in the school system. It would more important than we had first thought to convey that we sought to discover parents’ concerns, that we recognized our inquiry was not comprehensive inquiry but limited to a small group of parents, and that whatever we discovered, we would want to work collaboratively with the SpedPAC and school system to decide how to address any concerns.

On the night of the SpedPAC meeting, my partner and I were surprised when both the director and assistant director of special education for the school system attended. An advantage for me was that I already knew the assistant director because she had chaired my son’s IEP review team for the last two years.

Although my son had his share of problems in school, he was well-liked, and his father and I were praised by school personnel for our willingness to work collaboratively with his teachers and specialists.

When it was time for my partner and me to talk about our project I made sure to state my background and experience as a consultant and as a parent, and to frame the parent study group as a collaborative inquiry to discover parent concerns. When we summarized parent concerns about discretionary practices, I said that we recognized that educating children with special needs was especially complex, and that teachers and parents were all trying to do the best they could, so it was not about anyone being at fault, but how could we work together to improve things.

Though we could see that the direct and assistant director looked somewhat unsure how to interpret what we were really up to, they said they thought our project made sense, and looked forward to hearing the results of our inquiry.

The Power of Seeing Patterns and Discovering a Shared Purpose
At the second parent meeting, I recapped our first meeting and summarized the stories and some of my observations about themes and patterns, then asked parents what stood out for them. This was a way for the group to validate the findings and build consensus about what their top concerns were. Two new couples came to the meeting and we invited them to share their stories as well.

Next, we discussed what we could to do to take action. Ideas included learning more by conducting a survey of other parents, organizing a larger meeting for parents to share their stories; sharing our concerns by meeting with the school board and the superintendent; and putting pressure on the school system by getting an article about our project in the local paper.
Although all of these ideas had merit, some of them would involve a lot of time and effort (surveys and meetings), so I offered as an initial next to write a short report that told the story of the project, summarized parents’ experiences and cross-cutting themes, and included a set of recommendations. Someone suggested we share it with two school board members who were known to be sympathetic to the needs of children with special needs, and ask their advice about how to proceed.

The Power of Sharing Our Stories with Key Influencers
After drafting the report and getting feedback from the parent group, my partner and I met with two members of the school committee in early November to share the report and what our group had discovered so far. We told them how the project come about, the methods we used, walked them through the results, and asked what they thought.

They found the inclusion of short vignettes that summarized parents concerns very helpful, and wanted to help. They asked us to send them a copy of the report, so they would share it with the superintendent and members of the school committee.

After sending a copy of the report, my partner and I became busy with work and family responsibilities. After a third parent meeting to report on the meeting with the school committee members, our only contact with the other parents and the SpedPAC Chair was through e-mail. In the Spring, however, several months after we had sent the report to the two school board members, we learned that the director of special education had announced her retirement after 15 years of service. The assistant director was promoted to fill her place, however we heard she had been given a mandate from the school superintendent–improve communication with parents.

Coincidently, the disenchanted SpedPAC chair also moved on. A mother who had participated in the parent meetings with a background in communications became the new chair and has been in the position for the last 5 years. Under her leadership, the SpedPAC has continued to improve communications with the school system and with parents, through a newsletter and creation of comprehensive website to educate parents on topics about special education. 

How did these changes come about?  According to organizational consultant and author Meg Wheatley, change happens “as networks of relationships form among people wh0 share a common cause and vision of what’s possible.”  It’s from these relationships that “emergence” becomes possible, as “separate, local efforts connect and strengthen their interactions and interdependencies.” 

One mother shared her story.  I joined her.  Then we reached out to other parents, the head of our local parent advocacy organization, and  two members of the town school committee.  The school committee members in turn shared our story with school department leaders.  The sharing of stories across a network of relationships led to  the emergence of new possiblities in the system.

Our stories matter… Your stories matter… For you never know how much of a difference they make and to whom. ~ Caroline Joy Adams


Next Up. David’s entry explores methods for helping cities consider the regional impact of their decisions.


The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), enacted in 1975, mandates the provision of a free and appropriate public school education for children and youth ages 3-21 who have disabilities. In 2007-08, some 6.6 million children and youth, representing 13 percent of public school enrollment, received special education services. About 95 percent of children and youth ages 6-21 served under IDEA in 2007-08 were enrolled in regular schools.


Federation for Children with Special Needs

Advancing Parent-Professional Leadership

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 2010/08/26 11:46 am

    Thank you! I hope my example illustrates that even small beginnings can have ripple effects.


  1. Mental Disorders 101

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