Jessica Franco of Fox Lane High School was honored last week, along with three other local teens, for winning Student Advocacy’s annual “Overcoming the Odds” awards. The achievement singles out students who’ve persevered through what the advocacy group calls “significant obstacles.” Culminating with her high school diploma in the face of a lifetime of physical problems, she has proceeded from a mindset that has always dictated her to “deal with it and move on,” she says.
Helping children like Jessica get to a starting point – even if they already possess the will – is what this Elmsford based non-profit has been all about since it was founded in 1982. “Schools cannot proceed to help if they don’t know what services are available for children in need and that gives the child a much better opportunity to begin to experience some success,” according its Executive Director, Lisa Syron.
This can commence when parents and/or children become aware of what they are entitled to under the law. “Our mission is to protect children’s educational rights,” says Ms. Syron and with over 22,000 served in Westchester and Putnam counties in the last 20 years, impossible might not exist within the statement.
It would seem that’s the way 17 year old Jessica sees it also – despite having spent a significant amount of her life in and out of hospitals, leg braces and wheelchairs. Stricken with Spina Bifida, which is an incomplete closure in the spinal column, Jessica has succeeded in being the first member in her family to graduate from High School and plans on college with the hope of someday teaching disabled children.
All the more impressive, considering she missed six months last year and passed on physical therapy to play catch up on U.S. History and English. Although she hasn’t overcome the odds without a plan according to her guidance counselor, Lisa Dunne, and it’s something that takes place on a daily basis.
Ms. Dunne says Jessica seeks “to educate all those who work with her on the conditions she faces, to advocate for herself whenever necessary and to seek out the supportive assistance of those who can help her.” Ms. Franco virtually follows the model Student Advocacy hopes to get out of the parents it serves.
When an Educational Advocate from Student Advocacy takes on a case, the objective is to help the parent become an advocate for their own child. By arming parents with information on how schools run, “We can sort of help them through the maze of different problems and issues they may face,” says Ms. Syron.
Sometimes Student Advocacy will directly take on a case if a parent cannot take on anymore issues or the case is too complicated, but they generally believe the parent can operate more effectively than any other options. In the long run, “If they are communicating more effectively with the school, if they understand how schools run, then they are more prepared for whatever comes along,” says Syron.
But Student Advocacy doesn’t just go to bat for kids with disabilities, as they reach the bleachers for kids with drug problems, difficult family lives and any number of unique circumstances that put children at risk. An umbrella originally formed over these children when professionals from many different agencies started pooling their expertise for the sake of this population.
Currently with a staff of 12, Educational Advocates have either a background in law, in education or both. The synergy allows them to “look at what the child is entitled to under the law and what would be the best educational benefit to the child,” says Ms. Syron.
Although no one probably knows what’s better for students than students, as out of the Advocates has grown the Youth Advocacy Council. High School students who have interest in these issues organize advocacy projects to address them. One year they did a project on bullying, and this year they are preparing a public service announcement based on where student knowledge is lacking concerning their own educational rights.
Parents and students aren’t the only ones satisfied with the efforts of Student Advocacy either. School districts in contact with the group will know what they are and are not required to provide by law. “We’re helping everyone to be realistic about what can happen in a situation, and I think schools appreciate that,” says Ms. Syron.
She certainly appreciates the dedication of her employees and realizes it takes a special breed to endure in this occupation because “a lot of people don’t realize how dire some kids’ lives really are,” she concludes.
Rich Monetti interview of Jessica Franco, Lisa Syron and Lisa Dunne