DE's Kemone Hendricks talks to Kate Noble, the new Executive Director of Evanston's nonprofit that's dedicated to advocating for families whose children have special needs.
Evanston CASE is a nonprofit organization that provides support and advocacy services for parents and caregivers in Evanston whose children have disabilities. CASE helps families navigate the special education system--which is incredibly complex to navigate.
CASE was founded in 2007 by Cari Levin, who stepped down last month. Today we're going to find out more about what CASE does and how you can get connected to its services and programs.
We'll also focus on two key areas:
First, how CASE hopes to broaden their work with Evanston residents who historically have had far less access to services that help them maneuver through getting support in Evanston/Skokie School District 65 and Evanston Township High School (ETHS), particularly Evanston’s Black and brown residents.
The second focus will be on what they're doing to support Evanston families during the pandemic, and with all the uncertainty of how the next academic year is going to look.
KH: Kate, congrats on your new position. What did you do before this?
KN: I've had multiple careers. I started in corporate event planning. And I left that after September 11 to join my family's real estate business. My grandfather built a lot of homes in Evanston and Chicago in the 50s, and 60s, and so some they still own. And after that, I helped my sister open up a shop in Evanston. I helped her get that business off the ground, and then I decided to move into advocacy.
KH: So what brought you to CASE particularly?
KN: Well, I grew up in Evanston, and when my husband I got married, we knew that we wanted to move back, raise our family here. We found out we had two children with disabilities, it's very, it's very scary. And you feel very alone when you have children with disabilities, especially if all of your friends and everyone else you know doesn't.
And when my oldest was two, when we were looking at preschools, we found out about CASE when he went to JEH for the preschool special-ed program at the time. And that was just amazing, to find a community within Evanston of special needs parents and grandparents and caregivers who all understood the struggle and hard work that goes into raising kids with disabilities. And I just always knew I wanted to be part of it because it's such a special place.
KH: So you've taken over from Cari Levin, who founded and ran the organization for 13 years. Tell us about what CASE does and what your vision is for the organization going forward.
KN: CASE is a special education advocacy organization. It is community based. We serve families in District 65 and district 202. We a lot of strategy, planning, and we try and work with the school boards and make sure that we get special education on the agendas for different meetings.
But for families we have a wide variety of services that encompass everything in special education. So we have a parent-partner program where volunteers pair up with families who ask for support to go to IEP meetings, 504 meetings. A parent will go with you take the notes, and be a support person, because going into those meetings alone can be really traumatizing. And it can be really scary.
Just having that other person you know is on your side, it makes a huge difference. We have advocacy services, we consult--where people can call or email us, ask us questions.
We will also go and advocate for your child, help with the school, and work out whatever the problem is--the child getting services, getting qualified for services, navigating the entire system, which can be really tricky.
KH: What are the different ways families can get involved with CASE, or reach out for help, or meet other families who face similar challenges?
KN: We have the parent-partner program that I mentioned before. We also serve Spanish-speaking families. So we have Spanish-speaking interpreters we have, we have translation services for documents that the school maybe hasn't translated yet for a family.
We have an application on our website for parent-partnering that is also in English and in Spanish.
Besides that, we have a private parent Facebook group, which is an amazing community of people who are always ready to offer support, referrals, they'll tell their own story, and it's just amazing. You can put any question in there and you'll get 15 responses. It’s validating when other people have had your experiences.
And if you maybe have never heard of that therapist, or that therapy. Maybe you're brand new to your child's diagnosis, and now you can meet other families whose children have the same diagnosis. So it's a really unique and amazing community that's got almost 700 members.
KH: I'm part of that Facebook group. My son has ADD. So I post in the group and get feedback from people and every time I've ever posted something it's just like you said, very warm and welcoming. You get a lot of advice and you hear a lot of stories that are very similar. I really love that Facebook group.
KN: Unfortunately during the pandemic, we haven't been able to run our in-person support groups or our in-person coffee talks, but it's something that we are getting ready to roll out again, virtually, when the school year starts, based on people's availability and interest.
And one of the things that I was able to do last week was I held a Q&A with Romy DeCristafano, who is the Assistant Superintendent of student services in D65. I was able to collect an enormous amount of questions from the community about special education, about English language learners, 504’s, and what returning to school will look like for our students with special needs.
I have a follow up meeting with her next week, where we'll have a whole new set of questions then we'll post that one as well.
I think that what CASE is really trying to do, especially right now because this deadline is looming of which pathway parents should choose for their children for next year, there's a lack of logistical information out there for people.
CASE is trying to answer as many special-ed related questions as we can to kind of help make that decision easier for people who might be on the fence about what their child needs in the return to school.
KH: Given the pandemic and all the anxiety, parents, guardians, and children are feeling about what's going to happen this year, what resources and support do you offer to families whose child has special, especially if they are lower income and can’t afford private services to assist them?
KN: The district is really trying to figure out the best way to address mental health and social emotional learning in the fall.
CASE is creating a list with as many resources as we can of community programs that offer free programs and different therapies that are available at all different financial levels. We help families navigate what they feel like their child is really struggling with right now and how best to triage that and get them the services that they need sooner rather than later.
If a child has become incredibly anxious and their anxiety is through the roof during the pandemic, and they don't know what to do, they're afraid to go back to school, we can help pair them up with social workers, or we can talk to their child's school social worker, and be collaborative with them to figure out the best way to serve that family.
On top of that, CASE is working to make sure that families know that there are options. I feel like oftentimes the school doesn't always tell families that there are options. So we're getting that list created, making it shareable, because everybody needs the information now.
KH: You mentioned working with the schools to get information accessible to parents. What other ways have you worked with District 65 and District 202 on these issues? How responsive have they been?
KN: CASE was asked to be a member of the Return-to- School Task Force. I was really honored to be able to represent CASE and represent special education in these conversations and in this planning.
I was really impressed with the amount of space and room that the district allowed special ed to have and to really prioritize students with special needs in returning to school. I made sure that special ed was really a top priority of these conversations in planning what all of this will look like for different kids at different schools.
For 202, they had an internal Task Force. I don't believe community members were part of it. They now have some new leadership in special education at ETHS, so I'm working building some of those relationships. At District 65, Romy and I have really been collaborative, and she's very open to hearing parents experiences and stories. I want her to know that these families have stories. They've all experienced something different through the school closures, and I think it's really important that the District recognizes that.
KH: District 65 has a new superintendent, Dr. Devon Horton. He's been very vocal about his focus on racial equity in the District. How do special needs services fit into that?
KN: This is an excellent question and for years CASE has strongly advocated that the district present a special education report on achievement, test scores, how our special-ed students are doing across the district--every race, every gender, every grade. This year, Romy did agree to present.
She was able to present that to the board during the shutdown in May. The primary focus of the report was to show and address the specific problems with disproportionality and mis-identification of students of color in special education.
I think that it's really important to recognize the fact that this report was presented during a current global health crisis, but also during an educational crisis and a social crisis. It gives us an enormous opportunity to be able to address the intersectionality of race and disability in our schools, and not to pretend that disabilities only affect white children, or to not pretend that Black children don't have disabilities, and to have people understand the over- identification of students of color.
The lack of resources of students of color who need special education services has been a systemic issue. So I really appreciate Dr. Horton has made it a priority to talk about it, address it, and I hope we can help facilitate the conversation within the community and help spread the information so that parents feel empowered and educated to be able to make decisions for what their kids need.
KH: Often Black and brown families face more barriers when trying to navigate school, access services, or feeling empowered to advocate for their kids. How can you help those families?
KN: My primary focus is to try and create an enormous amount of community outreach. We plan on partnering with a whole bunch of community organizations, and we are going to be reaching out specifically to each of the schools themselves.
I plan on reaching out to each of the school social workers, and making sure that the information is disseminated across the district equally so that every school and families at that school know that CASE is here, what CASE does, and that they learn about what resources are available. It's so disheartening when you find out families have no idea what they are able to access, no one's told them. The fact that most of them think they have to do this totally on their own is beyond comprehension.
The fact that the district has such a big focus on equity seems like a perfect time to spotlight when race and disability coexist and intersect and that we can really focus on building those kids up and stop leaving them behind.
KH: I know you mentioned that you will provide materials and programming in Spanish.
KN: We’re always looking for volunteers. If anybody wants to volunteer, especially Spanish speakers, that would be great.
Another program that's coming down the pipeline is a family-mentoring program where we will pair up families, new families and experienced special-ed families, and try and create those connections on different levels. So we could have Spanish-speaking families that can connect and build community within the community.
I just want all families to know that CASE is here. We're ready. We're available. We can help--from just a simple phone call all the way up to being a full advocate for you.
We also pair with the James B. Moran Center for Youth Advocacy for families that feel they need legal representation. We want to be all-inclusive and accessible to all families in both districts and let them know that there is a place to go where they can feel welcomed if they're struggling to navigate the special-education system. We need to continue to address the inequalities and inequities at school and in special education.
KH: I wanted to share a little bit about my personal experience with you in regard to equity and ensuring that Black children and brown children are able to access the system.
My son who is now 13, he's going to be a freshman at ETHS next year. Kindergarten year was really, really rough. He was just not getting things and wasn’t picking up on a lot of things, and his teacher saw it. He actually transferred to another classroom during that year. At the end of the school year, the teacher pulled me to the side and said that she recommends for him to repeat kindergarten, I said, absolutely not; he's not repeating kindergarten, we need to figure out what's going on because I just felt like I wasn't getting any help through this process.
We would do all the things they told us to do at home, come back to school, but something wasn't right. I spoke to the principal. He said, we're going to move him to first grade and we'll try to ensure that he has a teacher that is able to assist him. But he has a teacher that complains that she's needing to take too much time out to help him, so he ended up getting transferred to another classroom. The whole thing was a horrible experience as a parent, and of course, as a child as well.
So we get to the end of first grade, where he gets transferred again, this is now the fourth transfer to different teachers for my son in first grade. At the end, one of the teachers pulled me to the side, and she says, "have you ever heard of an IEP?" I said, "No, I've never heard of that. What is that?"
She literally just took me by the hand, and set everything up for me, and told me, "You need to go to these meetings, this is going to help him."
I didn't even know where to go. I didn't know what to do. The principal knew, a lot of other teachers knew, but this one teacher took me by the hand and led me through the whole IEP process.
KN: To parents who are listening, if you have stories like this, if there's a story you feel needs to be told, please tell us. Email CASE and let us know. Email Romy as well. I really want these stories to be heard. These kids deserve to have their stories heard.
And please know that you can reach out and I will always listen. CASE will always listen and try to help in whatever ways we can.
KH: Thank you so much, Kate.
To email case: firstname.lastname@example.org
Find out more about CASE.