A Parent’s Final Cheer

For 13 years, I have been cheering my son on in his athletic activities. It started in kindergarten with youth soccer. Youth hockey began in 2nd grade. By high school, Josh played on the soccer team in the fall, the hockey team during the winter, and ran on the track & field team in the spring. While I was unable to attend every game and meet, I attended all that I could, and brought my enthusiastic cheering to every sideline for hundreds games and races.

Now that Josh is about to graduate high school and move on to the adult world, his participation in youth and high school sports ended yesterday with his final race in the 300m hurdles at the State Regional competition last night. While I am sure he will find avenues for competitive sports as an adult, it is unlikely that I will be able to attend most of those events and cheer him on.

I have previously written about how well run student athletic programs help to improve high school academics, and how appreciating staff support for their students’ athletic endeavors provides critical support to student success. But today, I write about why I cheered so often, for so many years, and the parental fulfillment that culminated after yesterday’s final race.

I learned a long time ago that the opportunities to vocally root for your child’s success do not present themselves as often as most parents would like. After all, we do not attend school with our children, and observe their successes and failures. While we can attend parent-teacher conferences, it simply is not the same as being an eyewitness to your child’s performance and through your presence and cheers, inform your child that he has your unconditional love and support. While Josh’s athletic schedule could sometimes be dizzying and often hard to fit into my busy schedule, I simply made the choice not to miss those many opportunities for such a public declaration of love and support for my son’s endeavors, as I knew that one day those opportunities would no longer be available, and they could never be recaptured if I missed them.

Track meets are very different than hockey and soccer games. They take hours to complete and the races tend to be very short. Last night was no different. I arrived in the pouring rain around 4:30 PM, and waited until Josh’s 300m hurdle race started almost 3 hours later. The 300m hurdle event is a grueling race. Josh is the only hurdler on his team. It starts across the track from the stands and I did my best to soak up every second of the under 1 minute race.

Fortunately, my zoom lens helped me get a good view of the start.IMG_2601

When they came around the bend, I could see the tremendous effort it takes to stride over each hurdle. IMG_2603It did not matter that Josh was not in first place, since both he and I are used to appreciating his effort regardless of whether he wins the race. As Josh finished the race, every one of his facial muscles revealed that he was giving it his all. IMG_2604

It had been a long day, and Josh would take the team bus back to school, so after his race, I texted him my congratulations on a race well run, let him know I was heading home, and told him to text me when he was ready for me to pick him up at school.

It was nearly 10 PM when Josh asked me to pick him up. Anyone who parents teenagers knows that parental appreciation is not always freely given as teens struggle to find their own place in the world and declare their own independence. But last night was different. First, Josh sent me the following text before I picked him up:

You’re the best. Thanks for coming to see my last high school race even if it wasn’t [a] good sporting event.

Needless to say, that appreciation warmed my heart. Best of all, it continued when Josh got in the car. He thanked me for cheering him on ever since kindergarten soccer and for being such a dedicated parent. When we got to a stop sign, we hugged in the car. I have probably forgotten many of Josh’s hundreds of sporting events. But I will  never forget that hug.

Thanks Josh for giving me so many opportunities to cheer you on. I have every confidence that you will succeed as you move into adulthood, even if I am not there to cheer you on. Just listen inside, I will still be cheering for you.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his web site: Systems Change Consulting.

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Threading the Systems Change Needle

Lost in the after midnight budget bombshell dropped by the Wisconsin Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee on our public education system earlier this week, was a small, but important civil rights victory for children with disabilities and their parents. No, it certainly was not the horrific stealth passage of a horrible Special Needs Voucher system that promises to rob children with disabilities of their hard won civil right to a free appropriate public education (FAPE), which parents of children with disabilities and their allies have successfully fought for the past 4 years.

Rather, with one small amendment, the Wisconsin Open Enrollment program, which allows students to transfer to other public school districts that may better suit their needs, moved one step closer to ending its statutorily sanctioned discrimination against children with disabilities. Remarkably, ever since this program began in the 1998-99 school year, the law permitted the rejection of children with disabilities who were considered an “undue financial burden.” 

The Open Enrollment program has been very popular all over the state. In its first year, state data shows that fewer than 2,500 students transferred to new school districts under this program. But, 15 years later, in 2013-14, nearly 50,000 students availed themselves of this flexible approach to public education.

Yet, due to the outright discrimination against children with disabilities whom school districts deem an undue financial burden, each year thousands of such children cannot use open enrollment to attend another school district like their non-disabled peers. I have fought this discriminatory law on behalf of dozens of children for nearly 20 years. Although, I have successfully pushed back on the law in court, despite numerous requests, until now, I have not been able to convince the legislature to rid Wisconsin of this statutory discrimination.

The opportunity to do so arose out of my role as a board member for the Autism Society of South Central Wisconsin. Shortly after joining the board, I worked with advocates from the Autism Society of Wisconsin (ASW) and the Autism Society of Southeastern Wisconsin to develop an advocacy agenda. We joined forces with many other disability advocates to help preserve Wisconsin’s self-directed long term care program, IRIS, from Gov.Walker’s budget chopping block. But, we also wanted to make progress for children in our schools in a very challenging legislative environment. I suggested that there might be an opportunity to thread the systems change needle by approaching Sen. Luther Olsen, the Senate Education Committee Chair, who serves as the key Senate Education member on the Joint Finance Committee to see if we could get him to sponsor a budget amendment to end the “undue financial burden” Open Enrollment discrimination against children with disabilities.

So, I made an appointment for the ASW Executive Director, Kirsten Cooper, and I to meet with Sen. Olsen. It was a short, but productive meeting. Almost immediately, he agreed to insert a budget amendment that would end nearly 20 years of state sanctioned discrimination. We thanked him, and periodically checked in with Sen. Olsen’s staff to make sure he would stay true to his word. Two nights ago, buried in the bombshell of voucher expansion and charter school takeovers, Sen. Olsen kept his promise, and the amendment to end nearly 20 years of discrimination was passed by the Joint Finance Committee. We have thanked him and will continue to monitor this small, but important piece of progress as the budget process continues to work its way through the legislature.

threading-the-needle-day

In 30 years of systems change advocacy, I have learned that success is often achieved in small but important ways. Knowing how to thread the systems change advocacy needle helps advocates identify the time, place and method for achieving such victories.

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For more information on how Jeff Spitzer-Resnick can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact him by visiting his web site: Systems Change Consulting.

Saving IRIS=Include, Respect, I Self-Direct

A few months ago, I joined the Board of Directors of the Autism Society of South Central Wisconsin (ASSCW). With my advocacy experience, I was quickly drafted to join an advocacy team that includes members from all 3 Autism Society organizations in Wisconsin, including the Autism Society of Wisconsin and the Autism Society of Southeastern Wisconsin. While we are working on many issues, one of the most critical advocacy issues for adults with autism as well as other people with disabilities and the elderly with long-term care needs, is Gov. Walker’s budget proposal to eliminate IRIS, Wisconsin’s self-directed, community- based, long-term care program for adults with disabilities & older adults with long-term care needs. People using IRIS have the flexibility to self-direct their plan of care within an authorized budget based upon their individual needs and desired outcomes. ​IRIS participants choose and direct the services and supports that make it possible for them to live, work, and participate in their communities- allowing more people to stay in their homes and avoid costly nursing homes and other institutions.

IRIS stands for, “Include, Respect, I Self-Direct,” so it makes sense that the Governor’s drastic budget cut inspired the creation of the Save IRIS organization which has helped to organize the fight to keep this incredibly successful program in place for the 12,000 people who use it to self-direct their long-term care.

Save IrisSince the Wisconsin legislature is controlled by the Republican party right now, the 16 member  Joint Finance Committee (JFC) includes 12 Republicans, who hold the key votes that will deterine whether or not IRIS will be saved or eliminated. So, yesterday afternoon, I organized a trio of advocates, including myself, a former special education teacher and former ASSCW board member, Char Brandl, and Abby Tessman, an IRIS participant to meet with staff for all 12 Republican JFC members.

As our marathon afternoon of legislative meetings evolved, it became clear to me how critical it was that Abby Tessmann, our IRIS participant team member, joined us. After all, the whole point of IRIS is that participants get to control their own lives. By clearly explaining to all 12 Republican JFC member offices, why IRIS was essential to her living as independently as possible, she evoked consistent responses from legislative staff that the Governor’s proposal to eliminate IRIS had caused their bosses serious concerns. Abby handed staff from each office her business card, indicating that she is an Advocacy Mentor. Abby is pictured on the right along with other great self-advocates involved in the Save IRIS campaign.

Self Advocates

By the time we finished our marathon session of 12 meetings, we felt confident that the Governor’s proposal is unlikely to pass. It remains unclear exactly what the legislature will do, however, so people with disabilities, their allies, families and friends, should continue to advocate for IRIS, the empowering program: Include, Respect, I Self-Direct. After all, isn’t that what all of us want?_________________________________________________________________

For more information on how Jeff Spitzer-Resnick can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact him by visiting his web site: Systems Change Consulting.

Building Cultural Bonds through Continuing Education

For the vast majority of American Jews, the culminating event of their Jewish education comes at the young age of 13 at their Bar or Bat Mitzvah. Most of these young teens simply choose not to continue their Jewish studies. This creates 2 dilemmas for the preservation of Jewish culture:

  1. The ever fading loss of cultural identity through lack of knowledge of Jewish history, culture and religion; and
  2. The increasing assimilation of American Jewish youth who do not remain involved in organized Jewish educational programming.

Fortunately, in Madison, the Jewish community has come together with 2 solutions to this problem. First, since 1975, the Jewish Federation of Madison has sponsored a Midrashawhich is a community wide after school Jewish education program for 8th-12th grade students. Students may take Hebrew language classes and earn credit for those studies from their high schools. They also take Jewish religion, culture and history classes. For many students, the opportunity to spend an hour on Sunday afternoon, and a few hours on Wednesday evening with other Jewish students serves to strengthen their cultural bonds with their people.

The second solution is that through a generous donation, qualified Midrasha graduates can receive a $2,000 incentive award to continue their Jewish studies after they graduate. These funds can be used in a flexible manner to go to a Jewish conference, study Hebrew, or attend school in Israel.

Earlier this week, my wife and I joined many other parents and attended this year’s Midrasha graduation ceremony, as our son was in the graduating class of 17 students. Fourteen of these graduates qualified for incentive awards to continue their Jewish education.

IMG_2575The smiles on these young adults’ faces demonstrate the bonds which they successfully achieved by spending years of study together. In fact, a few of these graduates gave talks elaborating on how beneficial Midrasha has been for them, helping them understand their own religion and culture, and therefore their place in our community and the larger world. Hopefully, some of these students will remain friends long into the future. But even if they do not, the value they received by learning from their teachers and from each other will remain with them for the rest of their lives.

Mazel Tov! 

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For more information on how Jeff Spitzer-Resnick can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact him by visiting his web site: Systems Change Consulting.