Pleasant Planning HOPE Easing Burden on Parents, Teachers of Special Needs, Gifted Children
By Sharon N. Schnall
Educators and parents want what is best for children, but coming to agreement on the teaching plan for a special needs or exceptional child can be a challenging process.
H.O.P.E. Mentoring LLC, an educational consulting firm, helps parents and an array of involved school officials — the teacher, principal, psychologist, counselor and special education coordinator — to reach that common objective. H.O.P.E. stands for “Helping Others Parent Effectively.”
The company’s founders, Katie Wetherbee and Suzanne Wilcox, both parents of exceptional children, started the business in 2003, realizing from their own experiences that parents need information, preparation and training to work constructively with educators. The company now has offices in Chagrin Falls and in Upper Arlington, Ohio, near Columbus.
Ms. Wetherbee, a Chagrin Falls resident, is a former special education teacher. Ms. Wilcox, whose expertise is in business communication, has worked in the hospitality and real estate industries.
Both know how to navigate the special education system. Ms. Wetherbee’s daughter, 12, was 4 years old when she had a “stroke as the result of a very rare circulatory condition.” She also has a 9-year-old son.
Ms. Wilcox, formerly of South Russell, now lives in Upper Arlington. She has four children. Among them, one son has Asperger’s syndrome, a neurological disorder sometimes referred to as high-functioning autism; another son is gifted; and a third son is gifted with attention-deficit (hyperactivity) disorder or ADHD.
The Ohio Department of Education considers the gifted category an exceptional category. Both women also have children that are “precocious and typically developing,” Ms. Wilcox said.
“ It always helps when you have someone who’s been through the process, who can prepare you,” said Chagrin Falls Schools district superintendent David Axner. “Their business is unusual. What they’re trying to do makes sense.”
H.O.P.E. has served families in 35 public school districts and private schools in Northeast Ohio, the Upper Arlington area and six surrounding states since 2004. The company also serves home schooling families.
The business was funded, in part, with a two-year, startup grant from the John and Susan Turben Foundation in Beachwood. While the owners declined to discuss specific figures, Ms. Wilcox said the business “has more than doubled its income from March 2005 to March 2006.”
In addition to the two co-founders, who operate home-based offices, another consultant recently was hired to serve clients and conduct workshops on student self-advocacy and parenting solutions in greater Columbus and Cleveland.
The Parents’ Perspective
Understanding how to work with educators to develop a child’s special education plan first requires parents to accept that their child has a disability or special need.
“ The school will say, ‘We need to do an MFE.’ Well, what is that?” said Lisa, a South Russell resident and H.O.P.E. Mentoring client (who asked that her last name not be used to respect her children’s confidentiality). “When you hear tests, your first instinct is to go, ‘No-no-no. I don’t want to label my kid. I don’t want you touching my child.’ ”
Lisa has three sons. Among them, one has dyslexia, a language-based learning disability, and another is gifted and also has dyslexia. She said H.O.P.E. slowed down the process, offered reassurance and talked about the players. They helped her to understand that testing, and yes, labeling, would insure that her children’s needs were met.
Ms. Wilcox routinely advises clients not to fear the Multi-Factored Evaluation or MFE. Required by federal law, it is a standard, preliminary review needed to determine the child’s educational disability category and eligibility for special education services.
The School’s Perspective
The parent mentoring process is one of consensus building. H.O.P.E. consultants encourage clients to share their grief and confusion, dreams and fears at the school meetings. Parents are counseled to recognize what can reasonably be done within a district’s financial and legal parameters.
“ Federal law says, ‘You must put any special education child in the least restrictive environment.’ Sometimes that comes across that the district does not want to provide extra services,” Dr. Axner said.
The company’s $65 per-hour fee includes counseling, pre-meeting strategizing, attending meetings with their client and follow up at year-end evaluations. Parents use services as changes — a new teacher, a child’s move to a different building, an updated education plan —require parent-school intervention.
“ We’ve been able to diffuse the situation to save the districts a lot of money and the parents a lot of money,” Ms. Wetherbee said.
H.O.P.E.’s services are not a covered insurance benefit, but a portion might be offset through qualifying funding from the local county Board of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities. Even on a private pay basis, hiring a H.O.P.E. consultant could be an alternative to attorney’s fees.
“ If you’re a parent and have a special education child and you want representation, who are you going to call?” Dr. Axner said. “You’re probably going to engage an attorney. The immediate response of the district will be to engage an attorney. H.O.P.E. Mentoring is one step before the attorney. It’s dialogue with representation without litigation.”