Special education advocacy organization opens in North Suffolk

Published 2:42 pm Thursday, January 27, 2022

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A statewide non-profit special education advocacy organization has opened an office in North Suffolk to help support families throughout the region and the state.

The Parent Educational Advocacy Training Center’s Hampton Roads office opened last October at 1510 Breezeport Way, Suite 300, in the Harbour Breeze Professional Center, after previously operating in the region in a home-based setup, and held an open house in December.

“In September, we hired our fifth staff person in Hampton Roads, and we thought, you know what, that’s enough to have an office and we’ll be able to have families come into the office if they want some face-to-face help understanding special education in Virginia,” said Keri Peko, PEATC’s business manager.

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Peko, who had previously worked for PEATC from her Western Branch home, is one of a handful of staff members working out of the North Suffolk office, as others in the organization work out of other offices in the state.

With staff from the Peninsula and the Southside, being based off of Bridge Road in North Suffolk is ideal. Among those working in the office are a family engagement specialist who also specializes in bullying, a military outreach specialist and a transition to adulthood specialist.

Elsewhere around the state, PEATC has an early childhood specialist. It also has bilingual Spanish-speaking staff.

When COVID-19 hit in early 2020, the organization was prepared to work remotely because many were already doing so, but with a physical presence, it will also have a benefit.

“From a business perspective, I think it really helps us as a staff just to be together, use that group brain to solve some of those complex issues,” Peko said. “Stay at what I call the tip of the spear and provide individual assistance and training to parents. I think as far as for the families and the professionals that work with us or need our services, that for them to be able to schedule a face-to-face meeting with us to look at the documents so we can educate them. It’s easier to educate face-to-face.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, it had been doing more virtual trainings, but this year, the organization is returning to providing more of them in-person.

It has held the distinction of the Department of Education’s parent training and information center in Virginia for more than 40 years, and it is funded by grants that are renewed every five years. Families can access the organization’s services for free.

Most families learn about the organization through its website, or are referred to it by other professionals working in the same field. For military families it works with, for instance, they get referred to PEATC by their Exceptional Family Member Program or by school liaison officers connected with their commands.

The organization also has a contract with the Virginia Department of Education and gets funding to provide services for those traditionally underserved.

It provides free workshops and trainings for agencies who ask the organization to provide them to help those families, and then PEATC staff remain in contact with those families to follow-up with the needed tools and information. It also provides individual assistance via email or phone, reviewing individualized education programs, or IEPs, asking questions about the process. It also helps them understand what a well-written one looks like and explains the steps in the special education process to understand “what the school is obligated to provide and do, and then what the parent’s obligation is to the process in the document.”

Peko said its resources are parent-friendly to help them break down the complex parts of special education.

She said school divisions’ special education coordinators are big supporters of the organization, and it provides professional development for several school divisions and has contracted with the Navy to provide training for its Exceptional Family Member Program staff and for their child development centers.

She said the biggest issues it works through now come through the lens of dealing with the pandemic. A couple of years ago, she would have said they were broader in nature.

“It’s an equal spread, but I think since the pandemic, a lot of it has been focused on services not being provided,” Peko said, “and how special education students can’t access their education virtually. For the last couple years, that’s been a large part of the number of calls and referrals that we get any more information on that and how to navigate that hurdle geographically.”

The best way to capture the impact of its services, Peko said, is on the populations who are traditionally underserved — highly mobile ones such as the military families, immigrants or refugees, those dealing with poverty or among those for whom English is a second language.

She noted that children with special needs are targeted more for bullying and are arrested more frequently. In the past year, the organization took 33,208 intakes, or exchanges of information with families and organizations or trainings it provided. It has created 34 new resources in English and 28 in Spanish.

“I think for us who have children with disabilities, and many of our staff are parents of children with disabilities, I think it tugs at us at a different level,” Peko said. “So anytime we get those calls, it’s a real eye-opening situation, and that’s the reality our kids are facing.”

So what marks a successful outcome for the organization?

“When we know that parents are able to participate effectively in the education of their children and collaborate with the school,” Peko said. “It’s that collaborative relationship between parents and schools that ensures the best outcomes for the parents.”

Peko didn’t have an organization such as PEATC to advocate for her own daughters, now 22 and 24, as they went through IEPs.

“Really, it’s about me hopefully giving the benefit of my experience and my education to the families of Virginia,” Peko said, “so that they don’t have to walk the same path that I did. I think just giving them the benefit of our experience, my kids would certainly be in a different place educationally if I would have had the information that we are providing families now.”