When Prairie Village residents Mark Coleman and Sara Worley talked to other parents of children with special needs, they kept hearing the same advice: Move into the Blue Valley, Olathe or DeSoto districts if you want to make sure your son has access to the best special education resources in the county.
Trouble was, leaving northeast Johnson County, where Coleman grew up and attended school (he graduated from SM East in 1980) didn’t strike them as an attractive solution. The community support their son Drew, who has Down’s syndrome, has received in the neighborhood has been overwhelming.
“Everyone in the PV Shops knows us by name we have walked there so much. More importantly, they have watched Will and Drew both since birth,” Coleman said. “Worst case scenario — let’s say Drew is never able to gain a level of independent living that would allow him to leave home. Tell me of another place in all of Kansas City where he could have an adult life in a throwback to 1950’s style friendliness like this neighborhood. We’ve looked. The answer is nowhere.”
So instead of pulling up their stakes, Coleman and Worley decided to make a push for the Shawnee Mission district to do provide more resources and opportunity for its special needs students. On Sept. 30, Coleman became the first-ever vice president of the newly formed Shawnee Mission Special Education PTA (SEPTA). The group, which will advocate for resources and services for both special needs and gifted students, is the first of its kind in Johnson County. (The Turner School District in Wyandotte County had the first SEPTA in Kansas).
Dawn Lalumondier, whose 12-year-old son is autistic, is the group’s president. She said the idea for the Shawnee Mission SEPTA had been percolating for a number of years, but a number of factors came together this year to make the idea a reality. At the group’s first meeting, 50 parents showed up. Lalumondier said the organizers had expected about half that many. In fact, they only brought 25 registration sheets.
“So we have 25 official members now, but we’re emailing forms to everyone who attended the meeting but didn’t get one,” she said.
Because the group is still in its formative stage, it hasn’t released an advocacy platform at this point. Lalumondier said members will be breaking up into committees in the coming weeks and will begin identifying specific goals. But Lalumondier said there is little doubt that the group will be advocating for better funding. Just 20 percent of the funding for special needs education comes from state and federal sources, she said.
However, Coleman notes that additional funding for special education won’t be the group’s only goal. Increasing awareness of how people with special needs can be better included in school programs and activities is an important step toward helping them on the path to independent lives.
“For Sara and me, the importance of starting the SEPTA now, and being involved in making it thrive however we can, comes from an understanding that it will take quite some time to rebuild the Shawnee Mission programs back to levels of leading the county like they did when I attended school here,” he said. “We are confident in [Hinson’s] ability to bring the District back to greatness — and we understand the reality that it will take some time. I have spent the last 18 months as an advocate for individuals with special needs in the greater KC area, and my experiences so far show me that indeed, we can do better for our children with a lot of effort and a little time.”
The group’s next meeting will be 6:30 p.m. on Oct. 28 at the Arrowhead Adminstrative Center, 6601 Santa Fe Drive. For more information, contact Lalumondier at 913-660-4763 or via email.