“I always ask if they’ve signed anything. Because a lot of times, they don’t have all the information about what they’re signing. Sometimes it isn’t even clear what it is.”
That’s Victoria Paulino, a veteran Navigator for Boston families. Victoria is now leading our newest offering: a unique partnership with a community-based health program, allowing pediatricians to refer families directly to our educational support services. When a family is referred to EdNavigator, Victoria gets a quick summary from the pediatrician: “inadequate supports in school” or “needs special education evaluation.” Then it’s up to her to get on the phone and start investigating what’s going on and how she can help.
“A lot of it is like detective work,” she explains. “We’re figuring out what the family’s needs really are, what resources they have access to, and what they know and don’t know.”
Our partner in this work, East Boston Neighborhood Health Center (EBNHC), serves families not just in East Boston, but across the city and in surrounding areas, from Revere to Chelsea, Everett, and Lynn—among the Massachusetts communities hit hardest by the pandemic. Most of the families speak predominantly Spanish, and often they’ve received important information about educational services their children can receive—but only in English. Since January, Victoria has been working with a family through an EBNHC referral whose experience is all too common.
Diego (not his real name) is three years old. The referral Victoria received said Diego had a diagnosis of autism, but that didn’t get at the heart of the challenge: The real issue was that he had been in school, and now he wasn’t. What was going on?
“The family had recently moved, but before they moved, he was in preschool five days a week. Mom wasn’t sure what services he was receiving at school, but she told me she wasn’t paying for it, so I knew it was a public school program.”
That clue led Victoria to call the district office in the city where the family had been living. Sure enough, the district had a file for Diego with a full-fledged Individual Education Plan (IEP), a legally binding document that should have been communicated to his mother in her primary language.
“For a lot of families, if they speak a language other than English, they are not getting the information they need to make informed decisions about their children’s services,” Victoria explains. “That’s a problem.”
Now living in a new city, Diego had been out of school for almost two months. There were many people involved with Diego’s best interests at heart—from his pediatrician to the developmental specialist who evaluated him to his former teachers and school district—and plenty of people had information about Diego’s needs. The problem was, they weren’t talking to each other. And while their healthcare provider had communicated with the family in Spanish, Diego’s school had been communicating in English, making it that much harder for his mother to know what steps to take to get him successfully transferred to a new district with his supports in place.
That’s where Victoria came in. “I asked the former district to email me his entire file, and then I sent it to the registration office at his new district. But in the registration office, they’re used to registering new students for next year. I had to explain to them, no, this kid needed to be enrolled yesterday. This family can’t wait any longer.”
That meant finding an immediate open seat for Diego, in a school with a separate preschool classroom for students with significant disabilities, with the staffing to support him. There were two schools with such classrooms in striking distance of the family’s new home. One of them had a seat.
“The real work is about connecting the dots,” says Victoria. “As a family, if you don’t know what supports your child is receiving or could be receiving, you don’t even know what to advocate for.”
By bridging the gap between a family’s healthcare provider and their schools, and making sure they are informed in their own language, Victoria isn’t solving problems for the families she works with—she’s helping them get the tools and information they need to advocate for themselves.
Now, Diego’s mom knows what’s in his IEP, what services he’s entitled to receive, and who to go to with any questions or concerns. She says she’s grateful for the support she received navigating a complex process.
“Gracias a la ayuda de Victoria,” she says, “fue posible que mi hijo entrara a la escuela". (“Thanks to Victoria’s help, it was possible for my son to enter school.”)
Last month, after a two-month hiatus, Diego started at his new school.