Empowering Parents to Advocate for Inclusion

Arturo, a first grader with autism who is non-verbal, was recommended to be separated from nondisabled peers. With support from MAC, Arturo’s mother, Ana, successfully advocated for him to remain in an inclusive setting with 1:1 professional support.

Massachusetts Advocates for Children is working to remove the barriers that exist in education to create equitable opportunities for children and youth to learn, grow, and thrive. The organization focuses its advocacy efforts on children and youth who face significant barriers, inequities, and/or discrimination because of their economic status, disability, race, ethnicity, culture, or immigration status.

Massachusetts Advocates for Children (MAC), a Boston-based nonprofit, has worked to advance inclusive educational and life opportunities for children with intellectual, developmental, and physical disabilities for more than 50 years. Specifically, it empowers parents of children with disabilities to advocate for fair and inclusive opportunities through a statewide helpline, local parent groups, educational resources, direct advocacy services, and legislative advocacy.

With support from the Tower Foundation, MAC has expanded its operations in the Lawrence Public Schools district, one of three districts in the Commonwealth under receivership due to chronic underperformance. MAC’s January 2022 launch of the Lawrence Inclusion Initiative aimed to build capacity among parents and community stakeholders to advocate for children with disabilities to effect system-wide change.

“It’s in large part because of the Tower Foundation that we’re able to focus so intensively on Lawrence,” said Diana Santiago, senior attorney at MAC. “We’re engaging the school district and administrative leaders to advocate for inclusive opportunities, because if it’s not being done well, it’s not inclusion.”

Having previously established programs in the district, MAC recognized the need for broader, systemic change in Lawrence Public Schools. It became clear after the pandemic that MAC needed to work closer with families and stakeholders to create sustained change in Lawrence.

By engaging parents, students, and community members, MAC identified the unique needs and challenges students in Lawrence faced, including a lack of special education services following the return to in-person learning, critical staffing shortages across the district, and rising rates of exclusion from general education classrooms in response to students’ disability-related behavioral or mental health issues. Through this process, MAC tailored the Lawrence Inclusion Initiative’s programming to have the greatest impact—from providing parents with advocacy training to directly advocating on behalf of area families.

“Words can’t express how much I appreciate what MAC does and the help they have provided me for Arturo. After all the stress, tears, and sleepless nights, I was finally able to communicate my concerns with the school during a meeting, and finally, just finally, Arturo will be getting one-on-one support,” said district parent Ana Gonzalez.