By CHRIS DETTRO
THE STATE JOURNAL-REGISTER
As the parent of a 9-year-old special-needs student, Jacqueline Gragg knows the education terrain can be difficult for the uninitiated.
As the Springfield School District’s new parent mentor, she intends to help other parents navigate the special education system.
“I’ve basically been through it,” she said. “I see this as an excellent opportunity to help other parents through the process.”
Almost 3,000 students in the district receive special-education services.
Gragg, who has a degree in business administration, previously worked as a disability advocate with the Social Security Administration. But she sees her role with the school district as less of an advocate and more of a mentor.
“I think of an advocate as someone fighting for the child,” she said. “I see myself as more of a mentor, bridging communications gaps and giving the district a parent’s perspective.”
Gragg was chosen for the job from among more than 50 applicants. Her annual salary is paid by federal stimulus funds — part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act — and is a one-year position.
Leu Baker, head of special education for the district, said if the position is successful, the district will try to find other ways to pay for it in the future.
There are 17 other parent mentors performing similar tasks in school districts throughout Illinois, Gragg said.
Lisa Brunson, co-chairman of Springfield Parents for Students With Disabilities, said her organization has been working with the school district for more than a year to design the position.
“We’re very excited to see it finally getting off the ground,” she said.
Gragg’s son has received special-education support services since he was 3 and in the early childhood program.
She said she had concerns about the special-education process in her son’s experience.
“There were some gaps in communication,” she said. “I started asking questions, doing research and linking with other parents who had children in special education.”
She found that some parents “didn’t understand why things were going the way they were.”
“They lacked information, and that made it discouraging for them,” she said. “Parents had certain concerns they couldn’t convey to the school district. It was too intimidating.”
Baker said officials “work hard to communicate with parents, but there are some things, as a parent, that they relate better to someone who is walking in the same shoes.
“We’re hoping to accomplish that.”
Gragg plans to hold workshops for parents of students with special needs and will attend Individualized Education Program meetings if asked by parents or staff. She’ll also distribute information about special-education laws, policies and procedures and will help parents find other community resources and provide confidential support.
Gragg wants to be seen as “a filter, a go-to person” for both the district and parents with special-education concerns.
“It’s a lot for a parent to grasp,” she said. “I will help them understand and want to make sure parents don’t feel like outsiders.”
Chris Dettro can be reached at 788-1510.