If you have recently given birth to a child with Down Syndrome in Santa Cruz County, you probably know about SPIN, directed by Cece Pinheiro.
If you have been trying to negotiate the maze of services (and lack of services) for special education students in our county, you should know about SPIN.
But even if you don’t have a child with special needs, you might be interested in hearing what Pinheiro has to say.
“When you help children that need it the most, you in turn help everybody,” says Pinheiro, who learned the ins and outs of special education as a Santa Cruz School Board member, “I learned that every public school in the state of California would have a balanced budget if it weren’t for the encroachment of special education on the general fund. Special education has been underfunded by 60%.”
It all started when the federal government mandated that children who need special education should get “a free and appropriate education,” but didn’t fully fund that mandate. States were left with huge new expenses, but not enough new income to cover them. So in effect, each state’s general education fund was gutted to pay for the mandated services. Though states may say they are spending the same amount on education as before, general education students are receiving less. It’s a situation nobody is happy with.
Pinheiro says that it was her life experiences that led her to becoming the director of SPIN.
“Not to sound like an old 80’s person,” she jokes, “I woke up pregnant in 1980 and ended up a single mom and my daughter had learning disabilities diagnosed in second grade.”
Pinheiro says that because of her situation, she had a luxury that lots of parents of special needs kids don’t have.
“I learned about special education and I learned how difficult the system is to navigate. A lot of people are strapped by their jobs, their economic situation, their self-esteem, and they can’t go to the schools and say ‘I’m going to figure out how this works’.”
After working in schools and a stint as a school board member while working for Community Television, she sought out SPIN as the place where someone with her skills belonged.
“I wanted to be involved in an organization that isn’t a grownup suing another grownup on behalf of the child. We have proof that the child just sits in limbo when that happens.”
SPIN has as part of its mission helping parents avoid lawsuits if at all possible. Funded by federal “pass-through” funds that the State can’t take away, SPIN is constantly in need of donations and support for their hands-on approach. Because the organization serves parents and not children, they are not eligible for private grants.
Pinheiro gives an example of their approach: “We have Watsonville Community Hospital calling us when a baby is born with Down’s to a family that speaks only Spanish,” she explains. SPIN sends a team which includes a Spanish-speaking parent who received the same support when her own baby was born. The new parents are mentored by the experienced ones, giving the benefit of the experience that Pinheiro and her staff have accumulated.
Pinheiro says that SPIN attempts to have a close working relationship with the local school districts. They are physically close to Pajaro Valley Unified School District: they rent the office space directly below PVUSD’s administration, and parents who have questions about their child’s education often come downstairs if the District can’t help them.
Pinheiro says that her opinion of the districts she works with varies.
“There’s good school districts that are trying to do good, what’s in the best interests of the child, and there’s others that are all about the money. They’re like, ‘Oh well, just sue us.’ That’s really a crime; it doesn’t help anybody. You should go into a different line of business if that’s your attitude.”
SPIN is celebrating its tenth anniversary, and they can use your help and support. Pinheiro understands that not everyone can put in the type of energy she can, but she says that now is the time for everyone concerned to do whatever they can to help.
“We can sit here until we’re old and gray and point fingers at the state government for not funding special education. We can blame the teachers, the special education directors, the parents. But I want to take responsibility.”
For more information: Visit the Special Parents Information Network. Learn more about special education services in Santa Cruz County.