Parent advocates, administrators, faculty, and local legislators celebrated the grand opening of The Chris Walsh Center for Educators and Families of MetroWest Feb. 13.
The center was created after a group of parents went to Rep. Chris Walsh in 2015 to voice concerns about the difficulties of navigating the special education system, particularly for gifted students, those with disabilities, or those with unmet needs.
At the unveiling, speakers commended Walsh’s tireless efforts spearheading the project, which colleagues said he devoted himself to until his death from cancer in 2018.
Sheryl Goldstein, a parent advocate, said she felt overwhelmed by the complex system for special education students. She said she received significant resistance from administration at her child’s school, and did not know where to turn for help.
Fellow parent advocate Gail Palmer said she had to learn the process of having her child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) implemented “the hard way.
“[Many parents] don’t understand some of the basic rights your children have with an IEP,” she said.
An IEP is a legally binding document.
“The idea [of this center] is that now, not every parent has to learn the process themselves. … The road won’t be so bumpy.”
A group of parents with similar concerns led by Goldstein and Palmer came together demanding change.
James Cressey, coordinator of the Walsh Center and professor of education at FSU, said Walsh had an active role in the project from the moment these parents put their issues on the table, consistently participating in meetings and striving to educate himself on topics of parental concerns.
Legislators working alongside Walsh said this passion defined his character throughout his career serving Framingham since he was first elected in 2010 until he died two years ago.
House Speaker Robert DeLeo said, “A group of parents approached him about their concerns in 2015, and less than five years later, the center has become a reality. And I can tell you, from my years in public life, this expedited timeline is very great.”
Walsh had lived “all over the world” with his family in the Navy, but Framingham was the home he cherished, DeLeo added.
“As he fell to his illness, Chris remained steadfastly loyal to his district, keeping abreast of local concerns and fighting for key items,” DeLeo said. “He didn’t want to talk about his illness. He was always talking about his district, and he was always talking about ideas on how to make it better.
“Chris was a gentle soul – he brought to his work a rare combination of grace and diligence,” he said. “No matter what the challenge was, Chris found beauty.”
Among other legislators involved in the process, DeLeo thanked Senate President Karen Spilka for her work on the Walsh Center project. She made it to the unveiling right on the heels of passing Senate Bill 2519, which is meant to provide improved access to mental health care across the state.
Rep. Jack Lewis said he “will always remember how, literally days before his passing,” Walsh spoke about how much representing Framingham meant to him.
Rep. Maria Robinson, who was elected to succeed Walsh, said, “Nobody can replace Chris. I am his successor, and I’m trying very hard to fill those shoes by running as fast as I possibly can.”
Walsh’s legacy will live on through the Center’s growing body of resources for the MetroWest families he devoted himself to serving.
The center has already hosted a free webinar lecture on Blackboard Collaborate about behavioral intervention and support, which recieved over 100 viewers.
The center will host an additional webinar titled “Dyslexia Research and Screening Practices” on March 3, featuring Harvard Medical School graduate and Boston Children’s Hospital researcher Dr. Nadine Gaab.
On April 29, Dr. MaryGrace Stewart, president of the Massachusetts Association for Gifted Education (MAGE) – who played a part in founding the center – will host another webinar called “Supporting Twice-Exceptional Learners at School and at Home.
“One of the reasons why the Walsh Center is so crucial is because only 4% of our schools have programs for gifted children, and that’s a lot less than there are gifted kids,” Stewart said.
She added she frequently gets desperate phone calls from parents whose gifted children became frustrated, acted out, and shut down in school due to their needs not being met by traditional educational models. In fact, she said four families told her their children were suicidal because they couldn’t stand being in school.
Families of low socioeconomic status and people of color struggle particularly, without the resources to afford academic enrichment or advanced classes.
“It’s such a great thing, because right now there’s nowhere like this in the state of Massachusetts,” she said, adding the physical space of the Walsh Center will significantly help MAGE support parents and educators through school advocacy, parent coaching, and professional development for teachers.
Though all 200 ticket spots for the webinars have already been taken, Cressey said Blackboard granted a request Feb. 12 for an expanded server that can support up to 500 viewers, which is quickly filling.
Cressey said the Walsh Center hopes to network with local community organizations and host parent/guardian support groups – times and locations to be announced – along with professional development sessions and a library of print and digital resources.
The “floating center,” as Cressey called it, will host events at various locations throughout Framingham while the advisory committee works to find a permanent site.
As they adjust, the advisory board is seeking new members to “fill in gaps in expertise,” he said, including an FSU student representative.
Students interested can apply now by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. “We hope to find a student who has experience working or volunteering in schools, especially with experience in early intervention or Pre-K, K-12 special education,” Cressy said, adding the center encourages students from “diverse backgrounds” to join.
The position would be a two-year commitment, with the representative attending two to three meetings per academic year.
Along with internships, the center will also offer a graduate student assistant position for 15 hours a week for the 2020-21 academic year. Assistants will receive two course vouchers and a $2,500 stipend each semester. Interested, experienced applicants can apply by March 2 on the Graduate Assistantship page on the FSU website, located within the Graduate Studies section.
Currently, freshman Leighah Beausoleil and senior Hannah Ricci work as a center assistant and a psychology intern, respectively.
Framingham Mayor Yvonne Spicer, who bonded with Walsh soon after announcing her plans to run for her current position, said she was honored to see his project come to life, adding she was in “deep conversations” with people interested in establishing a trail in Framingham named in his memory.
Spicer said there is currently a shortage of teachers able to meet the special needs of diverse populations, particularly when it comes to special-needs children for whom English is not their first language.
She is hopeful the resources at the Walsh Center will be a valuable tool in increasing educational access for all in years to come.
FSU President F. Javier Cevallos said the founding of the center is a proud moment in the history of the University.
“It is so special for us to have a center dedicated to the needs of children both in special needs, gifted, and problem [students]. We are – and we’re very proud of saying this – the very first public normal school in the country.”
[Editor’s Note: Leighah Beausoleil is Asst. News Editor of The Gatepost.]