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Secrets of Organizing a Successful Educational Advocacy Study Group:
An Interview with Loni Allen, Educational Advocate

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After reading Wrightslaw: From Emotions to Advocacy, Loni Allen decided to start an Educational Advocacy Study Group. Loni is an educational resource specialist at Parents Helping Parents, the Parent Training and Information Center in Santa Clara, California.

Since the first group met in 2004, hundreds of people have attended Educational Advocacy sessions. As a result of this training, experienced parents now act as "parent partners" for new or inexperienced parents at IEP meetings.

We asked Loni to share the secrets of organizing and facilitating a successful Educational Advocacy study group.

Getting Started 

Pam: How did you decide to start an Educational Advocacy group?

Loni: When I read Wrightslaw: From Emotions to Advocacy, I knew it would be a wonderful tool for parents and would help them understand their role in the special education process.

As I re-read the book, I started to collect websites and other resources that I could use as handouts for group members. I made a Word folder of resources for each chapter of the book.

I began the Educational Advocacy Workshop two years ago, in the spring of 2004.

Early Decisions: How to Structure the Group

Pam: How is the group structured?

Loni: I decided to structure the meetings like a book club. We would use the book, From Emotions to Advocacy, as the basis of the meetings.

I decided to use Power Point, handouts about community and state resources, and online resources to present each evening’s topic from the FETA book.

I posted an email on listservs and asked for suggestions and input from others.

I knew the group would include many types of learners with varying needs. I knew if I stood up and lectured, I would lose the interest of some members. If I expected members to take notes, they may not be able to pay full attention.

Email List of Members

I started a bulk email list of all group members in my email program. I use this list to send reminders to members about upcoming meetings. I also send Alerts to members about local events alerts that might be of interest to them.

I encourage anyone who facilitates an educational advocacy group to use a bulk email list. In addition to providing information, it keeps people connected and creates a stronger bond to the group.

Getting the Word Out

Pam: How did you get the word out? Where do the members come from?

Loni: We distributed flyers at the Education Trainings presented by our department. We also print fliers and put them in the hallways at our agency office.

Parents Helping Parents has a great website. I wrote a description of the FETA Workshop for the site.

Parents who select Support will learn about all the support activities at PHP. One click on the Educational Advocacy Study Group will take them to the page that describes that program.

We send out a monthly e-newsletter. This allows people who attend other support groups and workshops to learn about the Educational Advocacy workshop.

Nuts and Bolts of Organizing an Educational Advocacy Study Group

Pam: Other people may be interested in starting an Educational Advocacy study group. What advice do you have about the nuts and bolts of organizing a similar group?

Loni: Our Educational Advocacy group meets once a month from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. Each meeting is divided into two parts.

The educational advocacy workshop meets from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. and is structured like a book club. I present the topics, chapter by chapter, though Point Point presentations, discussion, and handouts. I also include useful websites. I don’t require that parents read the part of the book that we will discuss ahead of time.

We have a support group that meets from 8:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. The support group draws a smaller number of parents who may bring their child’s IEP, or request support from one another. More experienced parents and I facilitate the support group. We encourage parents to come up with their own solutions to issues, with the help of more experienced parents who share their expertise.

Parents and professionals can stay after the meeting to connect with others. This is often the very best part of the meeting!

After each meeting, I send a summary of the meeting to the members, and links to the handouts and websites. Sending this email summary keeps people connected and involved when they cannot attend a meeting.

Pam: How many people attend?

Loni: Between 15 and 35 members attend every meeting. Meetings are structured so people do not have to sign up for the entire series. They drop in whenever they can.

Some people return month after month. Some have attended nearly every meeting held over the past two years.

It is helpful to encourage more experienced parents in your community and professionals in the field to attend these educational advocacy meetings.

Since the first group in 2004, hundreds of people have attended these Educational Advocacy study groups.

Tip: Since people from different school districts attend meetings, I use nametags. I ask parents to put their name, school district, and their child’s disability on their nametag. This helps parents connect with others in their district.

Preparing for Meetings

Pam: As the group facilitator, how do you prepare for meetings?

Loni: You need to plan ahead so you have enough time to draft the show, be very prepared, and know the material in the From Emotions to Advocacy book.

Creating the Power Point slides will take more time than you think. When you are familiar with the material, you will come across as well-informed to the families.

Ordering Books at a Discount

I place bulk orders for books at a 40% discount. With this discount, From Emotions to Advocacy (retail: $19.95) costs less than $12. Parents can purchase these books at a discount when they attend. This has been very popular.

Using Surveys

It is important that the parents and professionals who attend these meetings are involved in planning so we can meet their needs. I have found it helpful to offer a training survey so members can offer their input and suggestions.

Ethical Issues & District Bashing

I have a slide at the beginning of each meeting that reminds parents that we are not gathered to be disrespectful of school staff. I ask that members be ethical and not use names. I explain that it is a good idea to use hypothetical situations to describe problems.

I also discourage ‘district bashing’ because it won’t help them to solve problems but stirs up feelings of anger and helplessness instead.

Pam: Have you changed the format since you first began the groups?

Loni: Yes, In the beginning, I aligned the presentations more strictly to sections of the From Emotions to Advocacy book.

Over time and with feedback from group members, I changed the training to include more parent input and discussion. This slows down the pace of training, but it makes the training more meaningful for members. Having more discussion gives members a chance to know each other too.

Pam: Do you have an outline or syllabus that others can use as a template?

Loni: My outline is based on Wrightslaw: From Emotions to Advocacy. The book is divided into five main sections:

Getting Started: Learning about Advocacy, Creating Your Master Plan, the Parent as Project Manager

Advocacy 101: Learning the Rules of the Game, Obstacles to Success, Resolving Parent-School Conflict, Crisis Management

The Parent as Expert: Evaluations and the Child’s Disability, Organizing the File, Tests and Measurements to Measure and Monitor Progress; SMART IEPs

Special Education Law: Key Sections of IDEA 2004, Section 504, No Child Left Behind

Tactics & Strategies: Rules of Adverse Assumptions, Creating Paper Trails, Letter Writing, Preparing for Meetings, Meeting Survival Strategies

The only time I strayed from this outline was when IDEA 2004 was reauthorized. I added slides to inform parents about the major changes in IDEA 2004. In each meeting, there may be a slide or two about areas of local or state interest.

I always include information about the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates and Wrightslaw so families know about online resources and communities.

Unexpected Benefit: Parent Partners

As a result of the Educational Advocacy group, I now I have a list of 20 parents who are willing to be ‘parent partners’ at IEP meetings! This is great for parents who are new to the world of special education. It is also a wonderful opportunity for parents to attend a meeting without feeling anxious.

Personal Benefit: Rewarding Experience

This experience of facilitating this incredible group of parents and empowering them to actively participate in the IEP process has been a very rewarding experience. I call the group the Educational Advocacy Workshop because there was a problem understanding that “FETA” was an acronym for the From Emotions to Advocacy book (not a cheese).

Pam: Loni, can you tell us more about your work?

Loni: I work in the education department at Parents Helping Parents, a large Parent Training and Information center [PTI] in Santa Clara, California. Our agency covers four counties and serves 57,000 children with disabilities in those four counties. Learn more about Parents Helping Parents

I also am an educational advocate for parents in Ravenswood City School District. One of our goals is to help parents become more empowered and collaboratively involved in the IEP process.

I am also a member of the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates.

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Created: 05/24/06
Revised many times, most recently in 2023.

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