For the last four years, Connie Lucius has taken her place at the table with special education students in Richland 1 who need someone to represent them in meetings with teachers and administrators.
Diane Thompson, a Columbia College professor who heads up the social work program at the private women’s college, has donated her time over the last 10 years in a similar way. Both are surrogate parent volunteers for special education students who are wards of the state or have no adult guardian to advocate on their behalf.
Lucius and Thompson serve as education representatives for the child in meetings with school teachers and specialists to make sure the student has the best individual education plan available.
“To me the main thing is to make sure the children are tested, to find out if they have any disabilities or need any accommodations, to make sure they are successful in school,” said Lucius, the ombudsmen with the city council office who was named the district’s Volunteer Spotlight in October.
“Sometimes there are four or five of us talking about the child,” said Thompson, who worked for the state Department of Social Services prior to joining Columbia College in 1995. “It’s really a collaborative effort.” Over her time in the volunteer pool, she has been called on to represent five children, from sixth to 10th grade.
The district has three volunteers and needs about seven more surrogate parents, said Debbie Alexander, the district’s special education coordinator. She said retired individuals make good surrogate parents because they have flexible schedules and are able to attend meetings.
Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the S.C. Department of Education is charged with making sure all districts provide surrogate parents to children without a parent or legal guardian.
According to the state handbook, the volunteers represent the child in all matters “related to the education, evaluation and educational placement of the child.” They may give or refuse consent for initial evaluation and initial placement of the child and are requested to review the child’s education plan on a continuous basis.
To qualify for the volunteer position, the district will conduct a SLED, DSS Central Registry background check and a sexual offender registry check. New volunteers are required to attend an orientation session.
Lucius said she thinks there is a simple criteria for volunteering: “Just to be a caring adult, watching and making sure our children are getting the education and skills to survive and flourish.”
Lucius became involved in Richland 1 through the now-defunct “Lunch Buddy” program, a partnership between city employees and Richland 1. She was working in the mayor’s office at the time and coordinated the “Lunch Buddy” program.
She now lives in Lexington County and had a child of her own but still wanted to make time to assist the city schools.
“I love children,” said Lucius, who has a 2-and-a-half year old. “We need to nourish them the best that we can.”
Of the 15 children she has served, most have been in high school, including youngsters at the Carolina Children’s Home. Often, she said, life circumstances have affected their educational progress so she works to help them get on track.
Thompson said volunteers need to be able to look at information on the child, including the Individualized Education Plan (IEP), tests scores and report cards, and be able to ask relevant questions of school officials.
“I do want to be an advocate,” Thompson said, “so that what is happening to the child is promoting the child’s development.”
Interested in being a surrogate parent volunteer?
Contact Katy Watkins, Richland 1’s volunteer and mentoring programs coordinator at (803) 231-7511 or firstname.lastname@example.org