The first time I remember protesting something was in elementary school. I circulated a petition to stop Revlon from testing their products on bunnies. I like to say those signatures played a small part in curtailing cosmetic testing on animals.

This holiday season I’m distributing a petition again, this time for personal reasons, but still to advocate for those who cannot speak for themselves.

My son, Ben, is a seventh grader at Randolph Middle School in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School system. He is in the special education program there. We learned just days before winter break that parents would receive a letter in January explaining that the special education program at Randolph would be phased out.

Ben, left, with Michael McCall
Ben, left, with Michael McCall

Phasing out Randolph’s program is part of a larger plan to change the special education program across the county. Gina Smith, director of Programs for Exceptional Children’s Department, told me over the phone that there are two major changes occurring: (1) Combine Special Academic Curriculum (SAC) classes with AU (autism) classes, and (2) Provide special education classes at student’s home schools, eliminating the special education classes at magnet schools. These changes would begin in fall of 2017 for rising sixth graders and ninth graders. Smith said it is to give students more choice and access to school’s closer to their home.

I spent my winter break coordinating a campaign to gather community support for the special education program at Randolph. Social media made it easy to contact large groups of people. Our story even reached local TV.

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It has been empowering to know that we may influence what happens next. I know from experience that our community responds when we ask. Here’s my plan for influencing change, three steps you can use no matter what cause you’re fighting for or against.

(1) Involve the right people – Who has an interest in this issue?

When I started this campaign, I had no idea how many people would feel as strongly as I do. I knew the current community at Randolph would help, but I was surprised when former students, parents and teachers at Randolph wanted to get involved. It also meant that this issue may be farther reaching than I first imagined. I found allies where I least expected.

Mitzi Corrigan’s 18-year-old daughter, Emma, is an alum of the Randolph special education program. In her letter to the school board, Corrigan said, “Finding a program where our children with special needs can thrive on every level is the single most important thing we, as parents, look for. The SAC (special education) program at RMS is one of the most successful ones in the CMS system. To discontinue this program would be a huge mistake and will affect a population of children that cannot advocate for themselves.”

Abby, left, and Emma Corrigan
Abby, left, and Emma Corrigan

Consider the obvious interested parties, but also look to those who may have fought this same issue in the past. Find the people who do not have an opportunity to voice their opinions.

(2) Be clear about your message – What do you want?

People will get behind a clear message. Be specific. People are afraid to get involved in something if they do not understand what it is they are supporting.

Our message has been two-fold: (1) A call for transparency. The process to change CMS’s special education program was not transparent. Parents, teachers and school staff were not involved in an open discussion or given the opportunity to ask questions. (2) Keep special education at Randolph Middle School.

(3) Call to action – How can I help?

Informing people about an issue is important. Once you have an engaged audience, you have to give them something to do that is helpful to the cause. Several people started emailing and messaging me, asking about what they could do. We responded with an online petition and letter writing campaign. We provided email addresses for CMS school board members and administration.

Our next call to action is inviting the community to attend the CMS board meeting at 6 p.m. Jan. 10 at the Government Center (600 East Fourth Street). (See what I did there?)

Photos: Vanessa Infanzon

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