The California Department of Social Services recently recognized San Benito resident Norma Nichols for her leadership in advocating for students with disabilities. Nichols is one of two California residents to receive the 2020 Parent Leadership Award from the Office of Child Abuse and Prevention (OCAP).
“Whatever I do, I do it with my whole heart,” Nichols said. “I just do it. It’s something that needs to be done and I do it, and to be recognized like this is amazing to me. I’m shocked and I did not expect it, but it’s a wonderful feeling to be recognized.”
Nichols, a part-time academic counselor at Hartnell College, president of the San Benito County Office of Education’s Community Advisory Committee (CAC), and mother of two, was set to be recognized for her advocacy at the third annual OCAP Parent Leadership Award ceremony on April 23 in Sacramento. However, the ceremony was cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Through her work advocating for her daughter Ella, who was born with down syndrome, Nichols unknowingly set a path for other special needs students to attend Spring Grove School as other parents took notice of Ella’s progress.
“They have come up to me and told me, ‘If it wasn’t for you and how we see Ella excelling, we would not have put our child, or tried to mainstream our child who has Down syndrome or any other spectrum disorder,’” Nichols said. “For me that is invaluable because when I started this I didn’t know anything, I didn’t know anybody who had Down syndrome.”
Nichols began her journey as a student advocate in 2014 when she collaborated with Spring Grove School to come up with a plan for then five-year-old Ella to attend general education classes. It is the only school in the North County Joint Union School District.
“For me it was of the utmost importance because at Spring Grove she is in the regular classroom with regular students learning at the same capacity,” Nichols said, adding that her daughter excels at the school because the teachers work with her.
At the time, Spring Grove School did not offer resources for those with special needs, and the school referred students to the Hollister School District. In the 2014-15 school year, Spring Grove served 742 students from grades one through eight. That same year, the Hollister School District served 620 special education students. Of those, between 21 and 71 students were five years old. The California Department of Education does not report the number of students in categories that have less than 11 students to protect the student privacy. District Special Education Coordinator and Administrative School Psychologist Kristi Vieyra said special ed students such as Ella now attend general education classes and receive specialized services including speech and/or occupational therapy.
Vieyra, who nominated Nichols for the leadership award, said she was impressed with Nichols’ solutions-focused approach to challenges that consider the students, schools and community.
“She’s just an amazing part of our community,” Vieyra said. “She provides support to our parents of students with special needs not only at our school district, but countywide through the Community Advisory Committee.”
CAC is a group of residents who provide advice and recommendations to the county office of education’s special education department.
Since joining the committee in 2014 and serving four years as president, Nichols has highlighted the needs of special education and come up with solutions utilizing the input of other parents. While Nichols does her own outreach, Vieyra said Nichols always makes time to answer questions or hear concerns from parents.
“She is a crucial part of how we communicate with parents,” Vieyra said.
Nichols also helps organize three seminars per semester on special education topics such as transitioning to different school levels, behavior, and individual education plans, which are official documents schools are required to follow with special education students.
“We try to do whatever the community needs,” Nichols said.
While it’s been a challenge to get parents to attend the seminars, Nichols said there is a slight increase in attendance every year.
Vieyra said Nichols has done more than construct a path for Spring Grove School to serve special education students—she has empowered all those involved.
“It was changing how we thought about special education and empowering kids to be in a general education classroom,” Vieyra said. “And empowering special education teachers to feel confident in teaching them. Ultimately it’s made everybody more successful.”
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