SMMUSD HDQTRS — For Kim Moran, negotiating special education services for her son was like sitting through an episode of “Let’s Make a Deal.”

“I didn’t know quite where to go,” Moran said about her experience navigating the district’s special education program when she first enrolled her son. “It was confusing and I felt disconnected and isolated.”

Today, Moran’s son, who’s on the autistic spectrum, is in the second grade at Grant Elementary School where she currently serves as a Parent Resource Network (PRN) volunteer, using knowledge gained over the past few years from advocating for her child to help other parents who ask the same questions she once had.

The Santa Monica-Malibu PTA Council launched the PRN last year after a long-brewing issue in special education came to a head with the release of an independent audit that revealed a series of concerning issues, from the practice of using confidentiality clauses in students’ educational plans to allegations of intimidation.

Many parents say the program has made strides since the release of the Lou Barber report in early 2008, a nearly two-year-period of time in which the district has seen a new administration and increased collaboration between school officials and parents through ad hoc committees and biannual forums.

The network designates a pair of volunteer point persons at each school in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, giving parents access to an experienced individual who has been there before.

“I know that the parents who have been chosen as PRN representatives are excellent choices,” Theresa Harris, the chair of the Special Education District Advisory Committee, said. “They have a real desire to create an avenue where parents in need of information can go to someone who’s in a like situation for information.”

Christy Hobart, who is the co-chair of the PTA Council’s Special Education Committee and PRN volunteer, remembers the at-times challenging years of when her son — a fifth grader who has epilepsy and is developmentally delayed — first started school, saying that she had good and bad experiences, including fighting to get supervision for her son in the first grade because he was having seizures.

Hobart said she also felt in the past that the district wanted to keep parents away from each other.

“They didn’t want us talking to one another, sharing stories and tips and advice but it’s a new day in the district and I couldn’t be happier,” she said.

Her son attends McKinley Elementary School and daughter, who is in general education, is a student at Franklin Elementary.

Hobart decided to join the Special Education Committee and volunteer for the PRN because she understands how lonely it can be to have a child with special needs.

There are about 25 parent volunteers with the program, many of whom received training last year with officials from the San Ramon Valley Unified School District, which experienced a similar set of challenges in its program several years ago. The PTA there formed its own Special Needs Committee in the fall of 2002 to provide support to parents and serve as an informational resource for both families and district staff.

All 17 Santa Monica-Malibu schools are expected to have a Parent Resource Network volunteer next year.

“Schools can be daunting and people don’t understand how it works and may be intimidated,” Superintendent Tim Cuneo said. “This is a way for them to have that connection to help them out.”

Moran was approached by the PTA president at Grant Elementary about joining the Parent Resource Network, agreeing to volunteer given her own experience.

“I would have appreciated having the Parent Resource Network so I feel really good about being a person who can help parents make that connection and answer people’s questions because it was very difficult for me,” she said.

The reception from parents has been positive.

“The parents seem really happy to have someone to talk to and I would say that they use (the network) a lot,” Moran said. “I get a call probably every week.”

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