Liza Brecher, whose older brother has Downs Syndrome, saw firsthand how hard her parents worked on his individualized education plan.
So when Brecher, a junior at , took a class called Leading for Social Change, and was tasked with developing a business model for a nonprofit. She created an organization to develop advocates for parents with children in special education in the Baltimore City Public School System..
Brecher’s project was one of three from the class chosen for a $5,000 grant. She's using that money to put the project into practice within the school system.
Currently her organization Homewood Educational Advocacy Resource is training Hopkins undergrads to be advocates.
It's also reaching out to several schools in North Baltimore to offer services to parents with children in special education.
In special education, each child is given an individualized education program, or IEP, which is then reviewed at least annually with the parents and several members of the school staff.
"The whole IEP team is on one side, and the parent is on the other and often times a parent is not satisfied with or happy with their child’s plan … but it can be extremely hard to have a productive discourse with the IEP team for many reasons, but a big one is that parents feel intimidated," Brecher said.
So this is where an advocate steps in and helps fight for what the parents want during a conference on a child’s learning program.
"The role of the advocate is to help make the parent’s voice be heard and make sure the child is receiving services that he or she should be receiving," Brecher said. "The problem with Baltimore is that advocates are few and far between and extremely expensive."
She said a private advocate can cost about $75 an hour, out of the price range of many families. Seventy-five percent of families with special education students in the Homewood area are living on less than $24,000 a year.
So Brecher, of North Andover, Mass., hopes that by training undergrads who want to go into education, it will help address the need for advocates.
Eventually she would like to expand the program to students at universities throughout the area.
"Because right now the families need the advocates, and in the future if you have teachers and principals who had experience being an advocate they're going to be much more open to having a more productive discourse," Brecher said.
The advocates—there are currently six trained—will meet with parents before the conference on a student's individual education plan.
They will also go to the meeting with the parent and will continue to meet with the parent after the meeting to make sure the plan is being implemented.
"The goal right now ... is to get the word out there so families start contacting us," Brecher said.
For more more information email HEAR.Baltimore@gmail.com.