Special education officials from several Northern Virginia jurisdictions called for improvements in teacher training and increased resources for parents last night at a joint meeting with the state Special Education Advisory Committee.
The state group, which advises the Virginia Board of Education on special education matters, holds two of its four annual meetings in localities around the state, mainly "for informational purposes," according to its chairman, Judy Hudgins.
Last night the committee heard representatives of advisory boards on special education from Alexandria, and Fairfax, Prince William, and Loudoun counties describe unmet needs in their communities and the effectiveness of their own organizations.
"We need to train our teachers," said Wilma Sargent of Loudoun. "And we need to identify those teachers with the compassion to teach special education children and then train them."
Stephanie Niedringhaus, a member of Fairfax's Advisory Committee on Exceptional Children, urged that the state strengthen education requirements for teachers who deal with children in special education programs.
"We need to train them to identify those children," she said. Teachers also need training in the problems of mainstreaming, the term applied to incorporating handicapped children in the regular classroom.
Parents also need help, according to testimony.
"The bureaucracy seems overwhelming" to many parents, said Niedringhaus.
Fairfax County, which serves 14,000 children with special education needs, now has a parent resource center.
The center will publish a Special Education Handbook for the county later this month.
The effectiveness of local voluntary advisory boards could be greater, according to Peggy Faragasso, chairman of the Alexandria advisory group.
"Being voluntary is our greatest strength and weakness," she said.
"There is an intense emotional element for us . . . . We all wear many hats. We hold jobs, we're parents. We run the risk of burnout."
Most of the speakers said the turnover on their boards is high, as much as 50 percent each year.
Hudgins said after the meeting that of the state's 136 school divisions, Northern Virginia has the strongest advisory boards. "It seems in this area boards are more savvy and have more clout" with school boards and administrators, she said.