Parent Centers 101 & Why You Need Them!

By Barb Koumjian, Assistant Director for the Branch, the Military Parent Technical Assistance Center.

What’s a Military Parent Technical Assistance Center?

We’re a project that was funded by the Office of Special Education Programs at the US Dept. of Education to help Parent Centers support military families whose child or children have disabilities.

What on earth is a Parent Center? What does a Parent Center do?

Parent Centers exist because of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA. The same law that mandates that your child has a free and appropriate public education also created Parent Centers, because Congress realized that parents might need assistance understanding and using IDEA to get that free, appropriate education for their children.

The mission of Parent Centers is to work with parents of children with disabilities, age birth to 26 so they can participate effectively in their child’s education and development. They use a variety of direct services to do this, including group training and information sessions and individual assistance. They also partner with other organizations that support and serve individuals with disabilities.

Annnddd—many, if not most of any Parent Center’s staff are parents of children with disabilities—or individuals with disabilities themselves.

Very Important: all federally funded services through a Parent Center are free. (Some Parent Centers operate within larger organizations, and those organizations may have some fee-for-service programs).

Where are Parent Centers? Do I have to contact a specific center because we are a military family?

Parents Centers are located in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and US Pacific Territories. The most effective way to get help from Parent Centers is to contact the Parent Center in your state or Territorial location. If you live in a state with multiple Parent Centers, you can get in touch with the one nearest you; they are most likely to have a deep knowledge of local resources. Parent Centers help all families, civilian and military.

What kinds of school issues can a Parent Center help with?

Parent Center staff are experts on IDEA and other civil rights law as they apply to your child’s education, although they are not attorneys and can’t give legal advice. They are also specialists in their state’s regulations on special education, which can definitely be different from state to state and affect your child’s eligibility, education, supports and services. They have lots of on-the-ground background on school systems and individual schools, as well as state and locally based non-educational programs that support individuals with disabilities. They are basically a one-stop-shop.

They can help you on anything to do with an IEP, a 504 plan, a medical plan, a behavior plan. Any instance of possible discrimination (although they may refer you to a Protection and Advocacy organization for legal advice). They can help you with:

  • developing your child’s IEP,
  • your child’s post high-school transition plan,
  • your child’s transition from an Individualized Family Service Plan to an IEP
  • They can help you look at, understand, and make decisions about how your child’s disability will affect their educational needs, and about how certain services and supports may benefit your child.
  • They can help you communicate and work effectively with the professionals who provide early intervention services, special education, transition services within and without the school, and your child’s school-based service providers.

Is there overlap between what EFMP/School Liaisons and Parent Centers provide, or is there a clear difference?

There may be overlap, depending on the training your installation’s EFMP and School Liaisons have had in special education. Some EFMP offices have staff who are knowledgeable about IDEA and have good connections in the local community. Others refer to civilian-side organizations such as Parent Centers to offer families detailed support with their child’s education needs.

In many states, Parent Centers, EFMPs and SLOs collaborate to give families a wider type of “wrap-around” support and access to all community services outside the gates. The new Military OneSource online tool, EFMP and Me, advises parents to contact a Parent Center for concerns about their child’s educational needs.

Some EFMPs and School Liaisons may not be aware of Parent Centers, but you don’t need a referral from them to use Parent Center services. Just contact the Parent Center directly.

How can I get training or resources from a Parent Center?

Call, email, or use the website help system.

You will usually, at first, get an automated response. Don’t be discouraged! Your information is being routed to the staff member who is most able to assist you. For example, some Parent Centers assign staff to particular parts of a state, and they are most knowledgeable about those local school systems.

Some Parent Centers have military family specialists! When you first reach out, make sure that you give the Parent Center your phone number and your email address, and indicate that you are a military family.

How can a Parent Center help when we PCS?

As mentioned earlier, Parent Centers are founts of state and local knowledge. Once you know your destination, reach out to the Parent Center in that state or area. Let them know you are PCSing in, and what your concerns are. If you are already working with a Parent Center, they can give you a warm hand-off to their colleagues in another state.

If you are trying to decide between different assignment options, Parent Centers may help there too!

One family had a choice between an assignment in Hawaii and another state. The parent called Hawaii’s Parent Center first, and found out that it wasn’t going to work for her child, who had serious pollen allergies and asthma, because the Parent Center told her that the school her child would attend conducted many outdoor class activities. In another case, a parent was advised that a local school technically had the capability to offer speech services, but the provider shortage in the area was so severe that children were only able to receive minimal services. On a more positive note, you might hear about a terrific state or local program from a Parent Center that’s ideal for what your family needs.

What age does my child have to be?

Any age. Although the Parent Center receives funding from the US Department of Education specifically to help children age birth-26, Parent Centers usually have additional programs serving other age groups across the entire life span. The birth-26 range is based on IDEA and is intended for school issues in particular.

My child is going to a DoDEA school. Can a Parent Center help in those schools? What about private schools? What about homeschooling?

Parent Centers can help you if your DoDEA school is in one of the 50 states or a US Territory. Unfortunately, there are no Parent Centers for other nations.

Parent Centers may be able to assist you with your concerns if your child is enrolled in private school or is homeschooled. It all depends on state laws about special education and how those laws or regulations apply IDEA to those situations. So contact your state’s Parent Center or Centers to find out!

What other services can a Parent Center offer? Where to begin?

Parent support groups, navigation of health systems, future planning, person-centered planning, youth support and activity groups, parent-and-child activity groups, Dad support and groups, self-advocacy training, internships, and many, many connections to other organizations across states and deep in local communities. It will be a bit different in each Parent Center.

Check out their websites!

How do I find a Parent Center?

There is a website which directs you to all Parent Centers. You can find
your Center at parentcenterhub.org/find-your-center.

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