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The Accidental Advocate

Nancy Reddish BSBA ’88 stands in the hallway of an Andover, Massachusetts, middle school with a manila file the size of a cinderblock under her arm, preparation for what she wistfully calls “another journey.” Every staff member who passes greets her by name and Reddish responds warmly; the atmosphere is one of mutual respect. She is here for a “team meeting” with her daughter

Ellie’s teachers to discuss the academic progress of the 14-year-old, who has a learning disability. Sitting in a conference room, Reddish at first mostly listens to the nine educators talk about “goals” and “strategies” and how much they enjoy having Ellie in their class. When it’s Reddish’s turn, she is polite, blunt, amiable, and tenacious – often at the same time. What she is not is intimidated as she gently but firmly interrogates each teacher about how the school is addressing various issues in her daughter’s education:

“How many [assignments] has she handed in late in your class?”

“What are her test scores in your class so far?”

“Do you know what she’s getting for Spanish grades?”

As the educators patiently answer her questions, Reddish is relentless with follow-up queries. Then comes a revealing comment: “I feel like there are things happening that I don’t know about. That’s a sticking point for me as a parent and an advocate.”

 

“Never on my radar”

Even when dealing with her own daughter, Reddish is advocating for the educational rights of all children with disabilities. Fourteen years ago, she founded the Family Advocacy Group of New England, which works with parents of children with special needs to ensure that their academic goals are achieved. Each year, she guides dozens of families through the labyrinthine rules and obligations of the state’s Department of Education, always emphasizing what is best for the child. During the 2010-11 school year, Reddish had about 30 clients throughout the greater Boston area, with another dozen on a waiting list.

“I let [parents] know right up front that I don’t represent them — the child is my client,” says Reddish, who calls herself an educational advocate. “I’m here to represent the child, but I’m also here to teach parents how to move through this process because you can’t hire someone like me all the time. Parents need to know how to read evaluations, how to speak to the school, and what their rights are.”

Reddish is the first to admit that being an educational advocate was “never on my radar” when she graduated from Suffolk with a degree in business administration. Still, rarely a day passes when she doesn’t find ways to apply the lessons she learned as a student.

“The skills I acquired at Suffolk have helped me to execute a business approach to an emotionally charged business. Parents are angry, concerned, and dealing with family issues due to a child’s learning disability. School districts are facing budget problems and feeling defensive against parents’ accusations and inquiries. It is my job to remove the emotion and rely on a structured business plan,” she says. “However, this business plan changes with each new case due to different disabilities, team personalities, parental expectations, et cetera. It is here where my Suffolk education comes in. It is here where I go back to my classroom instruction of how to build a plan and how to manage it to fit different business models.”

As is often the case in advocacy work, Reddish’s professional career was sparked by a personal crusade. After the birth of her first child, Kevin, 20 years ago, Reddish could sense that something was wrong. “I was told by everyone that I was overbearing, that I should let it pass, and he was just delayed,” she recalls. “Pediatricians would tell me that, well-meaning friends would tell me that. I had no idea about learning disabilities; I just knew in my heart something was amiss. I knew it when I held him, I knew it when we had eye contact.”

When her son’s school held him back for a second year of kindergarten, Reddish’s concerns deepened. “When I walked into my son’s [class] and I saw a teacher, hand over hand, cutting [paper] with him, taking him by the shoulders to another table, and my son just sitting there, I would just drive home and cry, ‘How can that be enough? Is that what they were going to do for the rest of his education?’” Reddish says. “They offered me a wonderful special ed teacher, and I said, ‘Is he going to have him all day?’ And they said no, ‘No, he’ll have him for a half-hour.’ That’s where you get to the difference between whether or not your child can survive in the public school system.”

Reddish sought guidance from the Federation for Children with Special Needs in Boston. With a better grasp of both her rights and the obligations of the school district, Reddish won placement for her son, who was eventually diagnosed with a language-based disability, at the Landmark School in Beverly, Massachusetts, which specializes in children with learning disabilities. Kevin attended the school from age 5 until his graduation last year. He is now at the University of Arizona, studying early childhood education.

The experiences Reddish had with her son’s education convinced her that she could help other families facing similar situations. “Sometimes I’ll watch a TV show about someone who has suffered a terrible loss and it becomes their mission. I think that’s what happened with me,” she says. “I turned it into something positive, but I know how hard I had to work to get there. I just don’t want to see it happen to anyone else.”

Since Reddish has personally lived through the trials and tribulations of seeking the best possible education for her learning-disabled son (and is now repeating the process with her younger daughter), her work as an educational advocate is that much more meaningful. “I trust Nancy 100 percent more because she’s been through it,” says a suburban Boston mother, whose son is one of Reddish’s clients. (Because the child’s case is still in litigation with the school district, his mother requested that she and her son remain anonymous.)

“For me, she has made such a difference, and we could never ever have gotten as far as we have without her,” the woman says, who hired Reddish as soon as her son was diagnosed with a disability. “She’s been my rock.”

 

‘A Little Bit of Hope’

In Massachusetts, the special education system is based on the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The law ensures that students with disabilities who are eligible for special education receive an Individualized Education Program (IEP) designed to meet their unique needs. Created by teachers and administrators at the child’s school and district, an IEP defines goals for that student for the school year, and any support systems needed to help achieve them.

“As soon as a student is deemed eligible [for special education] or the school knows that child is eligible, [the school] must, by federal and state law, begin providing those services immediately,” says Rich Robison, executive director of the Federation for Children with Special Needs. “[An IEP] has legal ramifications to it and most parents, at least initially, are unaware that that’s the case.”

As an educational advocate, Reddish helps families navigate the various options that are available to them. Sometimes it’s a refinement of special needs services at the child’s public school. Other times, if a parent rejects an IEP, outplacement – transferring the child to a private school better equipped for the student’s needs – is a more logical solution, although it can be a longer process involving mediation and hearings to decide how tuition costs will be handled between the parents and the school district, among other issues. In representing the child’s interests, Reddish attends team meetings with families (children under 14 are not present at the meetings), helps them draft letters to school districts, and also holds coaching sessions to teach parents to keep their emotions in check and conduct meetings in a “productive, businesslike manner.”

Reddish also consults with what she calls a “circle of professional colleagues,” including speech and language therapists, lawyers, and neuropsychologists. Attorney Jeffrey M. Sankey, of Dolan & Connly, P.C., counsels Reddish on legal issues related to children with special needs; she refers clients to Sankey when parents and school officials have reached an impasse about a child’s academic progress and potential.

“I’ll take up the case and take it through the Bureau of Special Education Appeals [a state agency that resolves disputes between parents and school districts regarding services for children with special needs],” Sankey says. “If the district isn’t giving what they should be giving, then it’s our job to step in to try and get it for [the child]. In my cases, I’m using what Nancy has built working as their educational advocate.”

But Reddish, he adds, also will tell parents if their requests are unrealistic. “Nancy is forceful in advocating for what these children need, but we both take the approach that if we don’t think what the parent is seeking is justified, we’ll tell them. That’s a difficult discussion, but Nancy has the knowledge and background to substantiate what she’s saying.”

Being knowledgeable about the system and supportive of families is one thing, Reddish says. Yet she doesn’t see herself as “a hired gun.”

“Sometimes I have to tell them, ‘You may not get what you need, they may not give it to you.’ From the parents’ perspective, they’re into it emotionally, and they want the best, but you have to remember the public school system isn’t legally obligated to provide the best nor can they,” says Reddish, who is also a certified mediator. “I think the district’s misconception is they want the parents to follow along with whatever they recommend. Typically, parents are programmed to do that – they trust their district, they trust their teachers, and they trust what’s being offered. I have parents who come to me and say ‘Well, they don’t have that program,’ and I’ll say ‘Well, let’s see.’ With the parents, they sometimes think the school’s first answer is the end of the line. It’s never the end of the line.”

Bob Broudo, president and headmaster of the Landmark School, says Reddish “just has the type of encouraging personality that would certainly embrace any student and parent going through this process because it can be very discouraging and difficult. She’s so positive and focused, she has attributes that would help a family feel a little bit of hope in the process.”

 

A Career Change

A divorced mother of three, Reddish grew up “very middle class,” as she puts it, in Needham, Massachusetts, a Boston suburb. Her father ran his own rubbish removal business, while her mother “did the books” for his company and tended to Reddish and her five siblings. After graduating from high school, she worked in various secretarial jobs before deciding, at 24, she was ready for college. “When I visited Suffolk, it just felt very comfortable. I liked the atmosphere, I liked that the students were all different ages, and that it was much more diversified.”

Reddish valued the small, personalized classes. In one of her more memorable courses, the students had to develop a marketing plan for an assigned product. “It was one of the hardest things I had ever done because we all disliked the product and had no idea how to market it,” she says. “But in the end, we were forced to develop a marketing plan to present to the class. It helped me to understand how to think outside the box, target your market, and be creative. I carry that with me in my professional and personal life to this day.”

With her degree and hopes of someday starting her own fashion business, Reddish began doing administrative work and assisting the designers at Susan Bristol Inc., a Boston-based women’s apparel company. Shortly after she married, she left that job to do marketing for a furniture company owned by her husband and his family. When her son was born, Reddish’s priorities changed, and she became a stay-at-home mother.

When her son’s educational situation was resolved – it took nearly five years — Reddish turned her concern to other families. She received parent consultant training at the Federation for Children with Special Needs, a parent information and training center for special education and disability issues that teaches parents how to advocate for their own children. Not every parent becomes a professional advocate – the Federation trains 250 people a year — but Reddish displayed an intuitive ability to connect with others in similar situations.

“She took the experiences in her own family and became an educated leader,” the Federation’s Robison says. “She does it very, very well – she’s professional, she’s a good listener, she’s empathic, and she’s really committed to making sure all kids have access to high-quality education.”

Asked if she could do this work as effectively if she were not the parent of two children with special needs, Reddish offers an emphatic “No.” Though she doesn’t share her own experiences with every client, she believes they can sense that being an educational advocate is as much a calling for her as a career. “It can be tough, it can be frustrating because it can be a drawn-out process, and you still may not get what you want. Rather than saying to parents, ‘I’m going to get you what you need,’ I now say, ‘I’m going to do the best I can for your child,’ which is really what every parent wants.

“You know, I always tell myself at the end of every year, ‘This is my last year, I am not going through this again.’ But then I get the phone calls, and I know I have to help these kids,” Reddish says. “It’s a path I’ve walked and I know there are a lot of people going through what I went through, right behind me.”

 

By: Renée Graham
Photography by: Blake Fitch

1 Comment to “The Accidental Advocate”

  1. Nancy,
    Terrific! This is a wonderful story about a tough journey, and some tough choices.
    I stumbled into educational advocacy the same way you did- thanks to my child. I ended up being trained as a volunteer, then hired by my state’s then-PTI.

    I sincerely hope to follow in your successful footprints, and I’m working on developing my own business plan as we speak.

    Way to go- and thank you for providing encouragement for so many!
    Roberta Belen