The Wisconsin State Journal
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) “Madtown Mommas” is hoping to guide parents in search of support after hitting roadblocks when seeking special-education services for their students.
Martha Siravo and Mattie Reese, along with a group of mothers in the Madison area, were tired of hitting roadblock after roadblock when advocating for their student’s special-education needs.
They discovered a sense of empowerment when they joined each other for support in meetings with school officials to discuss individual education plans for their students. And it’s that sense of empowerment the group, as Madtown Mommas and Disability Advocates, is hoping to pass on to other parents who reach out in search of support after hitting roadblocks when seeking special-education services for their students.
“Just having that one body in the room that you know is there for you makes a big difference and it builds confidence,” Reese said. “We put in a lot of work to make sure that the students receive the services they need to thrive in school.”
Madtown Mommas was formed in 2019 by a group of five mothers, including Reese and Siravo, who were fed up with being told “no” by area school districts when advocating for their students with special needs.
They join meetings between families and school district officials regarding students’ individual education plans (IEPs) or provide other supports to parents as they navigate an often turbulent process.
Their advocacy has morphed to include protests at the Capitol and providing educational resources for parents, and has recently crossed the country after the organization was tapped to help United Teachers Los Angeles with a project focused on the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
Members of Madtown Mommas draw on their own experiences and strengths to support each other as well as the students and families you advocate for. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Reese: My son needed services and was denied, and I had to be one of those parents to really fight to get him an IEP and the things that he needed to get his education, and now he’s off to college, and I’m really proud of that. When I met with Martha, that was the team of women I needed to be around at that present time. I wasn’t as educated about the process as they were, but I was demanding and I had the drive to say, “This isn’t it, and I’m not giving up.” That’s what I try to instill in the parents we work with, to say we’re not going to give up because we know that the resources are out there.
Siravo: I can’t do certain conversations alone without Mattie because of the culture that exists within some of the schools and the types of things the kids need to hear from someone who identifies with them better. Mattie has stepped in a few times, and it’s made a huge difference in the kids’ lives. I love the group factor behind that, because that’s how work gets done.
Reese: Majority, it’s Black and brown people who don’t know how to navigate the system to receive what they need, and I’m just the one to say, “You tell me no, I’ll make it a yes.”
Siravo: Watching Mattie bring the community together during the pandemic was empowering. We met through Madison Partners for Inclusive Education a couple of years prior to the pandemic. With the moms that I met through the Wisconsin Board for People with Developmental Disabilities, that’s how Madtown Mommas got formed, and then we started looking into the community, and once Mattie and I crossed paths, it was a natural fit. I was like, “She needs to be here” for the different strengths everyone brings to the table. I love the team effort behind it.
Reese: With Madtown Mommas, we’re not just focused on children and mothers here in Wisconsin. Martha will send us nationwide. When she gets me going, gets my brain going and thinking outside of the box, it’s on and poppin’ in a great way, and because of the results we get out of the work, I can sleep at night. I want to go back to both of your experiences with school districts prior to forming Madtown Mommas.
Reese: My mother knew my son had some type of disability, but as a parent it’s hard to accept that your child is not the norm to society, especially as an African American mother. I had to accept the reality from his social worker when she said, “Hey, if you don’t get him evaluated and get him some type of services, he’s going to end up in prison.” When she said that to me, I went all in. I knew that I had to get my son some help. I tried to get him an IEP, he was denied, and then she helped me get him an IEP. When we moved out to Waunakee his freshman year, that’s when I really started pushing and saying,
“Hey we really need to get him what he needs to graduate from high school.” That’s how I met Martha. We were able to sit at the table with those who made decisions and let them know what he needed. He ended up graduating and he’s going on to college, to barber school at MATC.
Siravo: Jaz (Siravo’s daughter) is only in fourth grade, so I really started diving in in November 2015. There was so much to learn from the very beginning. I was lucky to have some people at Head Start who really held my hand and gave me some tools to hang onto to help me understand and supports that Jaz needed. But when we got to kindergarten, with the Madison School District under former Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham, it was like we had to start all over again. I had to file a DPI complaint.
What was the moment when you realized you needed to band together to support other parents who may be going through the same thing?
Reese: That pipeline from school to prison is one of my biggest concerns because I lived it with my child. It made me open up my eyes a little more. … When it comes to African American and Black and brown children who have IEPs in schools, we really have to be careful with what we do and say. I see it in students who not are of color as well, but the ones that have IEPs are more subject to go through that school to prison pipeline vs. if you don’t have an IEP because a lot of them have behavior issues. There’s not enough support for children who have IEPs or disabilities, there just isn’t enough support.
Siravo: Mattie will ask what kind of supports parents have for their students when dealing with something that’s looked at as a behavior issue, and if there should have been an IEP in place. Also, what kind of families are getting these IEPs? And are they appropriate?
Do you serve Madison students exclusively?
Siravo: The nice thing is that we’re not stuck to a district, we’re not stuck to a city, and we can be really flexible. We can help parents from everywhere. … If anything, parents are so under-supported from the get-go that you become so overwhelmed when trying to navigate the system. Having that extra set of ears and eyes really makes a difference.
Reese: We’ve helped families in Waunakee, Stoughton, Sun Prairie — it’s all over.
Siravo: Union Grove, that’s closer to Milwaukee, Menominee Falls. And during COVID, we actually worked with the United Teachers Union of Los Angeles. UTLA was working on a project that was focused on the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and so our local teachers union, Madison Teachers Inc., connected us with them. For the past year and a half we’ve been working with UTLA on IDEA funding at the federal level.
Where do you hope to take Madtown Mommas? What’s your plan for the future?
Siravo: Eventually, I might run for School Board, but I won’t do that now because I need to be on this side of the fence. I can’t replace myself right now.
Reese: I’m looking forward for us to take a few trips down to Milwaukee to bring Madtown Mommas there so we can help more families. We’ll keep moving and we’ll grow.
Siravo: Eventually, I would love for Madison to have a disability resource fair. Right now we exist through social media and word of mouth.
Could you estimate how many families Madtown Mommas has helped since 2019?
Reese: Personally, through advocacy connected to Madtown Mommas, I’ve helped about 25 families.
As an organization as whole, probably around 100. Help has different levels. Sometimes it’s just help with basic knowledge, or joining families to advocate for their students during IEP meetings or meetings with school officials.
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