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June 30, 2022

Students help families navigate special education system via HEAR

By Jessica Kim Cohen | February 6, 2014

Working with children and families in Baltimore’s special education system, the Homewood Educational Advocacy Resource (HEAR) group is supporting special-needs children in getting the proper care from their schools.

Specifically, HEAR, a Hopkins student group based in the Center for Social Concern (CSC), helps families navigate the Individualized Education Program (IEP) process. IEPs are tailored modifications to the education program based on individual student needs that help students better achieve their educational goals. These modifications can span anywhere from getting books with bigger text to getting students one-on-one aids.

“There are lots of things, even like getting a child their own seat in the classroom. Some students really like the stability of having their own seat, especially at the front of the room, where they can get more teacher interaction,” senior Jennifer Lu, former president of HEAR, said.

To ensure families are not overwhelmed by the IEP process, HEAR advocates meet with families before IEP meetings to assess each family’s goals, attend meetings to work with the schools to make sure each family’s needs are met and follow-up with families after the school IEP meetings.

“A lot of the time parents know what they want, but don’t know the strategies for how to get it. They don’t know what they’re legally entitled to or what their options are. This is why we strategize with them before their IEP meeting,” sophomore Molly Moore, co-president of HEAR, said.

About 16 percent of students in Baltimore City Public Schools receive special education supports.

“Baltimore isn’t the best place for students with special needs. Often the families get bullied a bit by the schools, because of budget-cuts and whatnot,” sophomore Lauren Blachowiak, co-president of HEAR, said.

All HEAR members prepare for five weeks before meeting with families and are taught the policies of the Baltimore City Special Education System. This includes receiving training from organizations that work within the special needs system such as the Arc of Baltimore, which provides support to individuals and families with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and the Maryland Disability Law Center (MDLC), which supplies free legal services to Maryland residents with disabilities.

“We try to keep our training sessions small, which means that although we’re trying to help more families, we can’t expand too far,” Lu said.

HEAR has 12 members and serves approximately 20 families. Currently, HEAR is mostly made up of Hopkins undergraduates along with one mother from Towson.

“A huge part of what draws people to our group is personal connection. Our members also want to help people outside of Hopkins. A lot of groups are focused on Hopkins, whereas this is a good opportunity to talk with people outside of Hopkins, with these problems, and we can help them,” Blachowiak said.

Eventually, HEAR wants to set up a relationship with Towson University’s College of Education.

“We’re trying to expand in the future, but we first want to focus on getting more members at Hopkins, to get a stronger base,” Blachowiak said.

A relatively new student group, HEAR began accepting families in Feb. of 2012, after the founders, Liza Brecher and Rachel Muscat, received a grant from the Intersession 2011 Leading Social Change class.

HEAR members found that as the group became more established it became easier to continue their work.

“Our very first session, we actually had to pay people to come in for our trainings. Now it’s more of a volunteer thing, since they have seen what we can do,” Lu said.

Rather than actively searching for families as they initially did, HEAR now receives referrals from various organizations that work with special needs families, such as the MDLC.

HEAR has also established a partnership with the Arc Baltimore’s Parental Involvement, Educational Plans, Advocacy, Knowledge and Skills (PEAKS) program. The PEAKS program, founded in Oct. 2012, works with children that are in need of special education services, specifically those from homeless families.

“We want HEAR to be an important member of our ‘Resource’ Rolodex. We love the dedication shown by the students who volunteer for HEAR program and know that their passion and commitment can only be beneficial,” Becky Hartnett, project coordinator for the PEAKS program, wrote in an email to The News-Letter.

HEAR members have found their group to be successful, and are hopeful about the new PEAKS partnership.

“I really enjoy one-on-one advocacy, rather than fundraising or raising awareness because I really get to talk to people and realize how hard their situations are. With raising awareness, you might get that it’s hard, but you’re not really hearing their personal stories. It’s very different to actually go out and talk to a homeless population than when raising awareness about homelessness,” Lu said.

Although HEAR is a small group, its members are proud of its progress and expansion in the past two years.

“At first, HEAR really had to go out and scavenge for families. Now, families flood our inbox,” Lu said.

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