Table of Contents

Letter from the Director

Heather Calomese, Director, California Department of Education, Special Education Division

Photo of Heather Calomese

The Individualized Education Program (IEP) is the cornerstone of schooling for students who receive special education services. While the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act has made the IEP a requirement, that same federal law has crafted the IEP to be a road map for the specific opportunities that can open up the future for each student. This issue of The Special EDge explores how California is taking advantage of both the mandate and the possibilities.

In the newsletter’s first article, educator and professor emeritus Margaret McLaughlin reflects on the evolution of the IEP and the challenges parents, educators, and students have always faced with implementing the plan. She also articulates the degree to which the success of these efforts depends upon the individual abilities and commitments of key adults—and their vision for and with each child.

With the goal of addressing some of the IEP’s inherent challenges, California is currently wrestling with the idea of a statewide IEP template, one that is squarely focused on the student, the student’s strengths, and the student’s future. A second story in this issue highlights the state’s ongoing efforts to create and refine this template. This story also describes a corollary initiative to devise alternative pathways to a high school diploma so that every student, regardless of the nature or severity of disability, can anticipate earning a diploma and entertaining the fullest possible range of post-school employment and educational opportunities.

Another story explains how California’s statewide System of Support plays a key role as it empowers local educational agencies—Special Education Local Plan Areas in particular—to collaborate with teams of educators from schools and school districts as they identify and address local challenges that hamper efforts to implement the IEP. At the same time, that system is coordinating strategies to make IEPs not just legally defensible documents but also creative road maps for promising futures.

Perhaps most importantly, this issue features the voices of students, parents, and educators. They share their experiences with the IEP and offer ideas and strategies for creating and strengthening the IEP process.

The California Transition Alliance has for decades been a voice for students and their futures. The story about the Alliance’s March 2022 Bridge to the Future institute describes some of the many ways this organization supports students to become active participants in their own education and the chief architects of their own futures—a promising playbook for implementing every IEP.

The issue closes with a tribute to Sue Sawyer, soul and founder of the Alliance. California cannot honor her enough for the work she has done—and continues to do—in support of students. Sue has shown how state and federal requirements can become the very supports that transcend mandates and turn current dreams into future realities for students with disabilities.

— Heather

Promise and Potential of the IEP: Can This Vision Be Realized?

by Margaret J. McLaughlin, Professor Emerita; Counseling, Higher Education and Special Education; College of Education; University of Maryland

California’s Vision for a New IEP

● IEP outcomes are student-focused, strengths-based, aligned to standards, and backwards mapped from long-term goals, including gainful employment.

● General education teachers meaningfully participate in the IEP process, contribute to plans to increase participation in general education, and find IEPs to be a valuable tool for teaching and inclusion.

● Special education teachers and providers empower a student-led/driven IEP process and develop IEPs that include information about student strengths, needs, and learning strategies, including the supports needed for the student to participate in general education.

● Families and students access information on the comprehensive services available throughout a student’s life, including integrated school supports (outside of special education) aimed at long-term positive experiences and outcomes.

A few years ago, I wrote an article for The Special EDge titled “Standards and Students with Disabilities: The Long and Winding Road.” In that article I discussed the intersection of two powerful federal laws, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (now the Every Student Succeeds Act) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act. I focused on the evolution of standards-driven reforms across the United States and how those reforms might impact special education and children’s individualized education programs (IEPs).

I wrote with some optimism. I had hoped that enhanced accountability would make it possible for IEPs to reflect rigorous goals that aligned with the educational expectations of all other children. While there is some evidence that those changes have produced better outcomes, such as increases in the numbers of youth with disabilities graduating from high school, there is still a long way to go in achieving the promise and potential of the IEP.

California seems ready to implement some version of a new statewide IEP template. As described in the California Statewide Individualized Education Program (IEP) Workgroup Report, the template is designed to improve and make more consistent the elements of the IEP in both content and process.

The Report is comprehensive and thoughtful. It is also grounded in a vision for a new template that is very ambitious. In considering how that vision might be realized, I examined some literature on the foundations of the IEP and the early challenges of implementing it. I then reflected on how decisions about policy and practice have shaped today’s IEPs. Finally, I point out some of the challenges schools may face as they implement a new template.

A Brief History of the IEP

The IEP is considered the cornerstone of special education as a statement of a child’s legal entitlement to a publicly funded free appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (LRE) that will lead to the child developing the skills needed to successfully navigate an increasingly complex society.

The IEP became law in 1975 with the passage of PL 94-142 (later reauthorized as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA). Advocates had long been pressing for a requirement for individualized education plans for children with disabilities. The 1975 federal special education legislation represented an exceptional policy achievement toward that end. As one history [1] of the origins of federal policy on special education states, “The public mandate that all handicapped children are entitled to an education appropriate to their unique needs is undoubtedly the most significant” (p. 20) in the special education law. This account of the history also notes that the application of terms such as “appropriate,” “suitable,” and “specialized instruction” to the education of children with disabilities had long been a goal of parents and other advocates and had been used in various state laws that preceded PL 94-142. The history goes on to state that, while the IEP was “crucial” (p. 20) to achieving the purpose of the new federal legislation, IEPs had never been enacted on such a scale before, and there would be challenges to implementing them.

Early IEP Challenges

Early research on the implementation of IEPs identified some of those challenges. One study, [2] conducted before the federal law was passed, investigated three Massachusetts school districts as they implemented a state law that contained many of the same provisions of the later PL94-142. This Massachusetts law mandated that “children with special needs receive individualized assessment and treatment” (p. 180). The law prescribed that formal individual education plans be developed by interdisciplinary teams and include assessment, parent participation in planning, and consideration for “mainstreaming,” among other elements. The research focused specifically on how the “front-line workers” or “street-level bureaucrats” (e.g., teachers and administrators) implemented the new requirements. Despite the specific rules and requirements, the study found that each of the districts varied significantly in how the “front-line workers” interpreted the requirement of “individualized assessment and treatment.” [3] The findings also pointed to the importance of providing support (not just guidelines) to schools and of helping them build their capacity to implement the new mandates.

In the years following the passage of PL 94-142, several national studies were conducted to assess how school districts across the United States were putting the IEP into practice. Findings from three of the studies [4] documented a great deal of variation across districts in how IEPs were being developed. Overall, the studies concluded that only 15–36 percent—generally less than one-third—of the IEPs that were reviewed contained all required components. Those components most often missing were (1) evaluation criteria for measuring a child’s progress, (2) parental contribution to the IEP, and (3) some statement of the extent of the child’s participation in the “regular” education program, including justification for any lack of participation of a general education teacher. One notable conclusion of the GAO report was that many school systems “limited the content of their IEPs to the special education and related services currently available in the district” (p. 55), rather than to the range of supports and services mandated by law.

Obviously, findings from these early studies reflect a time when schools were trying to incorporate new, complex, and prescriptive requirements into their established routines. Today, IEP procedures and guidelines are well established within most schools. Recent amendments, however, have added a number of new requirements to the IEP, such as benchmarks for expected progress toward goals, transition plans, statements of how a child will access the general education curriculum and participate in state and district assessments, as well as discipline and behavior considerations. These additions are important. And each one makes it even more difficult to create IEPs that are legally defensible and that respond to the unique needs of each child.

With each amendment, states have responded with additional technical assistance to support local districts to incorporate new requirements into existing practices. District and statewide IEP templates represent one type of support intended to increase consistency and quality among IEPs. Consistency is very important, as the IEP provides the legal evidence that each eligible child is being treated equitably in deciding what is “appropriate.”

As important, however, are answers to the questions of What? How? and Where? as they pin down the specially designed instruction and related services that the IEP spells out. These questions define and direct the quality of the IEP, and their answers depend almost entirely on the knowledge and capacity of the members of the IEP team to determine the “appropriateness” standard. Given that, it is important to consider some of the persistent challenges in the implementation of FAPE and the IEP.

Persistent Challenges

Perhaps the biggest challenge is how to determine that a child is benefitting from individualized education. The 2017 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Endrew v. Douglas County School District included the basic standard for determining educational benefit: “to meet its substantive obligation under the IDEA, a school must offer an IEP reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.” [5]

What is absent, however, is a uniform measure or set of criteria for demonstrating progress and benefit, regardless of a child’s individual goals. This absence places the burden of effectiveness on the members of the IEP team, where the quality of their teacher preparation, professional development, personal mindsets, the substantive engagement of parents and families, and local permissions can help to create IEPs that are either clear and hopeful road maps to the future or plans that effectively relegate children to permanent second-class citizen status. Lack of uniform criteria also hinders system-level or public accountability if a child fails to demonstrate progress based on the IEP goals.

Accountability for demonstrating progress was something advocacy groups fought to include from the first iteration of IDEA. Advocates lobbied for explicit IEP requirements that would define what an “appropriate” education meant for a child and for holding local districts legally responsible for providing the education, including specific evidence of benefit. [6] States, schools, and teacher groups that were legally responsible for delivering the individualized education resisted that level of accountability. The compromise, supported by Congress, was that the IEP would not be intended as a binding contract with specific “deliverables” but rather a statement of a child’s entitlement to FAPE, which state and local educational agencies would be responsible for providing but not legally responsible for “failure in performance” [7] of the child. Both the goals of the IEP and how they are evaluated need to receive significantly more attention if the ambitious aims of the IEP are to be realized.

A second persistent challenge has been the lack of substantive contributions by parents and general educators in developing the IEP. Much effort has been expended to address these issues, including funding for hundreds of demonstration programs and models, for parent centers to provide trainings and produce guides and other professional learning tools, and for massive state-level guidance. The evidence of substantive vs. “check the box” participation, however, is not available, aside perhaps from state-level surveys of parents about their involvement with IEPs. Both the evidence and improvements will need to occur at the school level.

A similar issue is the involvement of general education teachers in a child’s IEP. At a time when many more children are receiving their education in the general education classroom, there is scant-to-no evidence if or how they are “accessing” the general education curriculum. Further, many IEP teams struggle to translate grade-level expectations into IEP goals, particularly for children with more significant learning needs. An involved and committed general educator is essential to any success in these efforts.

Pull quote from the text that reads, " the necessary changes to iep are tied up in fundamental beliefs about potential of students and their right learn "

These are only three of the challenges that have remained over time. Yet they are significant and have resisted remediation efforts in spite of numerous amendments to the law since 1975, dozens of state-level policy changes, and innumerable trainings.

Going Forward

I’m not sure that the IEP itself will ever be able to address deeply embedded issues related to the interpretations and capacity of local districts to implement the expectations of special education legislation. The necessary changes are tied up in fundamental beliefs about the potential of these students and their right to learn, and belief cannot be legislated.

The prospect of a universal IEP template does support greater consistency. Achieving the vision of a new IEP, however, will require a great deal of attention to and consideration of how to support individual teachers and local school leaders who ultimately determine the pathways that lead to successful outcomes for students.

A colleague asked me, “After almost 50 years, why are we doing this again?”

I replied, “It’s not again. It’s still.”



[1] Ballard, J., Ramirez, B.A., & Weintraub, F.J. (1982). Special education in America: Its legal and governmental foundations. The Council for Exceptional Children: Virginia.

[2] Weatherly, R,. & Lipsky, M. (1977). Street-level bureaucrats and institutional innovation: Implementing special education reform, Harvard Education Review, 47(2).

[3] A medical model was used when IEPs were first implemented—thus the word “treatment.” From the beginning most educators knew that a medical model wasn’t appropriate. These children were not broken. They needed to be educated, not “fixed.” Yet in the years immediately following the passage of PL94-142 and the resulting influx of federal dollars, beautiful, clinic-like facilities/schools for children with disabilities were often built next door to the neighborhood public school. And these new facilities often were experienced as prisons by the children who longingly looked over the fence to watch their siblings and neighbors playing in the schoolyard. We may still be working to overcome the original perception by many that “these children” need something “special and different.” In some ways, that separate model that was designed to “fix it” was easier to implement. . . except that it did not deliver on the intended outcomes for students. —Eds.

[4] Government Accountability Office (February 5, 1981). Report to the Congress of the United States: Unanswered questions on educating handicapped children in local public schools. Washington DC: Author. [Government Accountability Office under the direction of the Comptroller General’s Office conducts evaluations of legislation and policies at the request of Congress—Author.] Research Triangle Institute (October 1980). Final report: A national survey of individualized education programs (IEPs) for handicapped children. Research Triangle Park NC: Author. SRI International (1978). Three states’ experiences with individualized education program (IEP) requirements similar to PL 94-142. Menlo Park, CA: Author.

[5] Yell, M. L., & Bateman, D. (2020). Defining educational benefit: An update on the US Supreme Court’s Ruling in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District 2017. Teaching Exceptional Children, 52(5). pp 283–290.

[6] Levine, E. L. & Wexler, E. M. (1981). PL94-142: An act of Congress. Macmillan: New York.

[7] Ibid. (p. 128)



  • Ballard, J., Ramirez, B.A. & Weintraub, F. J. (1982). Special education in America: Its legal and governmental foundations. The Council for Exceptional Children: Virginia.

  • Government Accountability Office (February 5, 1981). Report to the Congress of the United States: Unanswered questions on educating handicapped children in local public schools. Washington DC: Author.

  • Levine, E. L. & Wexler, E. M. (1981). PL94-142: An act of Congress. Macmillan: New York.

  • Research Triangle Institute (October 1980). Final report: A national survey of individualized education programs (IEPs) for handicapped children. Research Triangle Park NC: Author.

  • SRI International (1978). Three states’ experiences with individualized education program (IEP) requirements similar to PL 94-142. Menlo Park, CA: Author.

  • Weatherly, R. & Lipsky, M. (1977). Street-level bureaucrats and institutional innovation: Implementing special-education reform, Harvard Education Review, 47(2).

Workgroups to Improve School Outcomes for Students with Disabilities

A photo of a meeting room with a line of chairs an microphones ready to be used. Schools are still struggling to realize the intended benefits of the IEP.

Originally conceived in 1975 as the road map for special education services, the Individualized Education Program (IEP) was designed and has been modified through several amendments and numerous policy recommendations over the past 40-plus years in an effort to guide educators in their work with students.

While the high school graduation rate of students with disabilities is modestly higher today than it was before federal law made the education of students with disabilities a national mandate, the post-school outcomes for these students remain low while their poverty rates remain high. Only two states in the country currently show employment rates for individuals with disabilities that exceed 50 percent—and those only barely. California ranks near the bottom third (thirty-fifth) among states, with a 36.4 percent employment rate for its citizens with disabilities.

The state is committed to invigorating the IEP process and thus improving school and postschool outcomes for students with disabilities. To this purpose, the State Budget Act of 2020 (Senate Bill 75) mandated the formation of a workgroup to study and recommend the most effective improvements.

The California Department of Education (CDE) contracted with the Sacramento County Office of Education to form this group and provide administrative support. The group itself was made up of 38 individuals: parents, general and special educators, early learning specialists for infants and toddlers with and without disabilities, related service providers, school district administrators, Special Education Local Plan Area (SELPA) representatives, college and university professionals, researchers, and state agency representatives (e.g., from the CDE and the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence). The group members estimated that collectively they brought the experience of nearly 20,000 IEP meetings to the effort, with most members having represented different roles (e.g., parent and teacher) at different times in those meetings.


After deliberating for six months, the group recommended that local educational agencies (LEAs), schools, and IEP teams:

  • Promote student involvement in their own IEPs
  • Develop IEPs that are student-focused and strength-driven
  • Develop IEPs that are designed to improve meaningful access to the general education setting and curriculum
  • Support the active participation of all IEP team members in the IEP process
  • Increase the involvement of general education teachers in the IEP, especially in decisions related to a student’s placement, in order to increase opportunities for students to receive their special education and related services in a general education setting
  • Elicit input prior to any IEP meeting from the student, family/guardians, teachers, providers, and case managers to promote active engagement in the process

The workgroup also recommended that the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing (CTC) revise coursework for all general educators, special educators, and educational administrators so they are:

  • Knowledgeable about the purpose of the IEP
  • Prepared to actively participate in and contribute to a student-centered, strengths-driven IEP process
  • Possess the skills they need to support and accommodate students with IEPs in general education settings

The workgroup developed and recommended the adoption of an IEP template that would support:

  • A student-focused,strengths-based approach
  • Attention to secondary transition and post-school outcomes from the earliest age possible
  • Increased student participation in the IEP

The workgroup envisioned that this universal template and all IEP plans be available and accessible online to ensure transparency and to make data-gathering efficient and accurate.

Finally, for these practices to be successfully implemented statewide, the workgroup recommended ongoing guidance, training, coaching, resources, and support for everyone involved: students, parents and family members, general and special education teachers, service providers, and educational administrators.

Many professionals in the field are welcoming these recommendations, especially as they point to a future where IEPs are more student-focused, where transition services and supports are a consideration from the moment a child is determined eligible for special education services, and where all school staff and members of IEP teams are focused on each student’s unique strengths, preferences, and needs.

The IEP Template

Heather Richardson was a member of this IEP workgroup. As an early childhood general educator in the Eureka City School District, she is especially gratified to see the template incorporate issues of secondary transition throughout the document. The IEP process, she says, “works best when that kind of thinking and planning starts before kindergarten.”

Attention to long-term growth and vocational goals during a child’s earliest years, she says, is critical to the child’s later success in school and in life. “It used to be that when we’d bring that up, case carriers would say, ‘They’re three years old!’ And laugh. But we really can look at things that happen in early childhood and say, ‘These are the things that are setting the child up to be successful in elementary [school], which will set them up to be successful in their secondary education and out in the world.’ Making the connection as early as possible” was a theme she continually revisited during her time with the workgroup—a theme that ended up being reflected in the group’s recommendations.

Often, Richardson says, “a parent will say, ‘I just want my child to be happy.’” Case managers, she says, serve both parents and the child best when they push past this very human first desire. She would like educators trained to ask probing, follow-up questions: What does happiness look like for your child? How might happiness change as the child grows? What does that look like for your family? Then, how can we get there?

Richardson is concerned that children will miss out on important early intervention opportunities if parents don’t understand the importance of imagining adult life when the child is young. The proposed IEP template “starts to include those kinds of higher-level questions, the open-ended questions in response to families.”A pull quote that reads: "An early focus on transition in the IEP helps to ensure that children don't miss out on important early intervention opportunities."

Sue Sawyer, president of the California Transition Alliance and a decades-long advocate for early transition planning, fully supports how the template embeds a focus on transition to adult life. If this focus is made universal in the state’s IEPs, she says, schools will see better outcomes for students with disabilities, and the students themselves will experience critically important benefits: “improved high school graduation rates, increased employment rates after high school, increased participation rates in post-secondary schooling, and decreased participation in benefits programs.”

Richardson also likes the way the template increases the level of family involvement in the IEP. “This template allows families to say, ‘This is what we see for our child’s future in the context of our family and our culture and our society,” as opposed to the school saying, “These are the things we do, and this is how your child can fit into it.”


The IEP workgroup’s report offers a “vision of a student-focused, strength-driven IEP that is aligned to state standards.” The report goes on to suggest that the biggest challenge to realizing this vision is the mindset of “many members of IEP teams and public education leaders about the role of IEPs in the general education system” (page 34).

Richardson agrees. As a general educator herself, she has seen her colleagues struggle because of their “lack of knowledge and lack of confidence in being able to serve students with IEPs.” She is in full support of the workgroup’s proposed solutions: requiring teacher preparation programs to ensure that all educators are knowledgeable about the IEP—its purposes and processes—and providing commensurate training and support for current teachers. “I didn’t even know what an IEP was when I went through my bachelor’s programs,” she says. With the proliferation of inclusive settings in the state, she says, general educators need to know the purpose of the IEP, how to contribute to it, and how to use it to guide their instruction in general education classrooms.

Another aspect of mindset involves seeing students with disabilities as general education students first, and not as students who “belong elsewhere,” says Richardson. How to change mindsets across the educational system may be “the million-dollar question,” says Liz Wolf. “That’s what we’ve been thinking about as we prepare to meet and train and work with teachers and administrators,” says Wolf, assistant superintendent of educational services in the Redwood City School District. The challenge, she says, lies in “getting to their hearts and the ‘why’ of the work that we’re doing.” A pull quote that reads: "The challenge of changing mindsets lies in "getting to their hearts and the ‘why’ of the work that we're doing."

Wolf is looking forward to the next school year and hopes to be past the many staffing and logistical challenges posed by the pandemic. Then, she says, “we can start to think and plan and talk about remembering why we all got into the field of education in the first place: caring about kids and wanting to do right by them. Getting back to that purpose,” she believes, will help to address mindset issues. She says school administrators also need “time to think about their vision and the mission of their school and what it means to serve every child and how we can support them. We’re working together on this. But we haven’t had these conversations in so long.”

Wolf says that, in her experience, true system change takes time and patience, and she advocates starting small. “What’s the one thing we can get done?” is a critically important question to continually ask, she says. “And then in a couple months, what’s another thing that we might be able to do? It’s not something we’re able to implement right away. We’re going to try stuff, and some stuff is going to work, and some isn’t. And we’re going to learn from that and just keep going.”

Tamara Clay spends a great deal of her professional life thinking about changing mindset and what she calls “mental models.” Clay is executive director of the El Dorado County SELPA, one of three SELPAs comprising the SELPA System Improvement Lead Project. The project uses Improvement Science as its operating framework and works across the state to build the capacity of districts and SELPAs to ultimately improve outcomes for students with disabilities.

“We do know that lasting improvement involves shifting systems from where they are to where they aspire to be,” Clay says. This, she says, “connects to the IEP and requires some really important and difficult work around our beliefs and biases. But how do we shift that mental model? First, we need to surface” those beliefs and biases. “At a boots-on-the ground level, we need to understand what we believe about our students with disabilities, what they are capable of and entitled to.”

Juliet Anyanwu, program specialist for the Supporting Inclusive Practices (SIP) Project, agrees. “If you’re not aware, how can you change?” Anyanwu says that supporting staff to develop this awareness and make necessary changes “should be a key priority in this initiative around IEPs.” Anyanwu supports the workgroup’s recommendation of training for IEP team members, although she says it is not enough to shift mindsets.

Trainings can deliver information that increases knowledge and informs mindset and attitudes. But “you need to follow up with coaching and provide opportunities for teachers to reflect on their practice,” says Anyanwu.

In Lela Rondeau’s experience, one of the best ways to change mindset is to see what best practices look like in action, and to witness how teachers act on the belief that every child can and deserves to learn. Rondeau is a special educator and instructional coordinator in the Los Angeles Unified School District. “If you’ve worked your entire career, and never seen an example” of students learning and thriving in a general education classroom, she says, “it’s difficult to have the vision for it. It’s important to tell stories, to show examples and share where we’re having successes so that others can better plan for it.”

Diploma Pathways

While the IEP workgroup was writing its recommendations to improve the IEP and its processes, another workgroup was grappling with a related issue: the high school diploma.

A pull quote that reads: "One of the best ways to change mindset is to see what best practices look like in action, and to witness how teachers act on the belief that every child can and deserves to learn." The efforts and recommendations of these groups overlapped. “The purpose of the IEP,” says Sawyer, “is to create a program that provides a roadmap of success for students so they can step out of high school and into adult life. And one of the predictors of favorable post-school outcomes is a high school diploma.” In California, however, there are currently two distinct records of high school achievement: one a diploma, the other a certificate of completion.

“The main problem,” says Sawyer, “is that the certificate is not recognized by employers as having the same gravity as a diploma.” This “second-tier status” leaves many individuals at a profound disadvantage when they start looking for jobs as young adults, she says.

Rondeau and Sawyer were both members of this second group, the California Alternative Pathways to a High School Diploma Workgroup, which on page 4 of its report articulated recommendations for ensuring that “all students with disabilities, including students with significant cognitive disabilities, [can] enter high school knowing they have the opportunity to earn a high school diploma.”

According to the workgroup, placing a student on a path to earning a certificate runs counter to the language of federal law. The workgroup’s report on page 5 cites an expressed goal of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act: “every student with a disability should have an opportunity to earn a high school diploma that allows them to pursue any postsecondary college, training, or employment options, and meaningfully and fully participate in their community.”

New Opportunities, New Option

In California, two diploma pathways currently exist: one based on state standards, the other on local standards. The workgroup is “asking for increased utilization and access to those two existing pathways for students with abilities,” says Nicolas Wavrin, CDE consultant and workgroup member. “LEAs,” says Wavrin, “can request to waive certain local requirements within the A–G course of study, so that a student with a disability would only have to meet state requirements” to receive a diploma. That option exists, and the workgroup’s recommendations would make it more broadly available to IEP teams so that each team, Wavrin says, “could determine if a student with disabilities would benefit from meeting only the state minimum graduation requirements and thus recommend to waive the local requirements for graduation.”

The workgroup is also recommending a third diploma option, one designed specifically for students with significant cognitive disabilities, says Wavrin. “This new pathway would be for those students who would traditionally be on the certificate pathway.

“Right now,” he says, “you have students entering high school, and it doesn’t matter if they do exactly what their IEP team tells them they need to do. They do everything they needed to do, complete their course of study, and do not graduate with a diploma.

“This new option says, ‘We’re done with that system. Every student is going to have the opportunity to earn a diploma. Their work and efforts are valuable. And we’re going to provide them with the individualized services and supports to achieve that goal.’

A pull quote that reads: "Every student is going to have the opportunity to earn a diploma." “But we’re not just taking the certificate of completion and calling it something else,” says Wavrin. This third pathway would require students to meet “minimum course requirements aligned with California’s Alternate Achievement Standards.” More importantly, students with significant cognitive disabilities who earn a diploma “will be able to go into the workforce not just with a high school diploma, but also with those skills that are acquired through earning that diploma. And this will have a big impact on their postsecondary success.”

As the state considers the option, says Wavrin, “we’re moving from the theoretical to the practical.” He acknowledges the challenge of ensuring consistency and equity across the state in implementing this third diploma option. But, he says, “this is a civil rights issue. At the end of the day the proposed diploma options would allow every student with a disability a door to walk through—whereas before there was just a wall.”

“Offering a diploma to students with disabilities is a fair reward for their effort,” says Rondeau. “If students with disabilities have been in school for the same amount of time as their nondisabled peers and worked hard and met their goals, we want them to have something equivalent to show for it.”

Sawyer agrees. A longtime advocate of diploma options for student with disabilities, Sawyer says, “The workgroup’s report doesn’t say we need to do something brand new. We just have to expand the use of what we have—although we’re going to struggle with those schools that think A–G is the only answer for getting into college.”

A high school A–G program excludes many students, with and without disabilities, says Sawyer, surfacing “issues of social justice, economic justice, and labor rights justice,” especially when some students with disabilities are placed on the certificate path in the early grades. At the same time, the Alternate Pathway Workgroup, she says, offers recommendations for making all diploma pathways “as rigorous as possible, holding students to high standards and high expectations, while ensuring that getting a diploma is still manageable for all.”

Ensuring High Standards

“What initially concerned me when I started with the workgroup,” says Rondeau, “is that there are many, many students with disabilities who are absolutely able to earn a high school diploma.” For some reason, she implies, they don’t. In carving out a new pathway and creating more access to the existing ones, she says, “We want to be really careful to look at what the student is capable of and make sure they have opportunities that map to the highest standards possible. This is the job of the IEP.

“My hope is that by having another diploma pathway for students, we’ll also be better able to educate employers about the skills that make these graduates amazing as workers,” says Rondeau. “Employers can get stuck on this idea that students need to have this high school diploma. If that is a prerequisite, and we’re able to give students a diploma, we’ll be able to give them a fighting chance of getting a good job at a competitive wage.”

Rondeau also points to another outdated vestige of some school programs. “In the past,” she says, “our state was oriented toward preparing students for sheltered workshops, working at below-minimum wage. At that time, having students in a separate classroom made sense” because those sheltered experiences reflected the world they would move into as adults. Sheltered workshops, other segregated work placements, and sub-minimum wages, however, have been outlawed in California. “Now we are looking at how we can prepare students to engage in Competitive Integrated Employment. And that means we need to have our students integrated and included throughout their education.” This new reality, she says, requires both a new kind of IEP and a new diploma pathway.

Next Steps

The next step for the state is to study the recommendations of both workgroups, refine them, and present a set of final recommendations to the governor, State Board of Education, and state legislature. Language in the state’s 2022 budget trailer bill provides financial support for this work.

A stage full of graduates throwing their caps in the air.

The direction of legislation—recent state budget acts as well as sweeping federal laws—reflects a collective commitment to ensuring educational benefit, securing positive outcomes, and supporting bright futures for students with disabilities. With the recommendations of these workgroups in hand, California seems determined to carry this vision forward.




Strength-based and Student-focused IEPs

Two parents with their young son sitting between them sitting in a classroom and talking to the teacher across a table.

“I got tired of hearing
about all of the things I couldn’t do.
All of the things I’d never do.”

—Student with a disability speaking at the California Transition Alliance institute

Deficits often take center stage in the Individualized Education Program (IEP). This lens is understandable. Areas of need are what make a child eligible for special education and an IEP in the first place. And members of an IEP team must know how a disability is interfering with a child’s ability to learn—what the challenges and needs are—if they are to plan the special services and supports that will help the child succeed in school.

While focusing on what children can’t and don’t do well may seem to be the right way to teach them the knowledge and skills they need to graduate from high school and succeed in adult life, research shows that an emphasis on deficits can undermine a student’s confidence. This emphasis also can erode high expectations among teachers, as it tends to deemphasize (or not even acknowledge) a student’s strengths. Further, a deficit approach can contribute to a school culture that institutionalizes inequities. Research confirms that a focus on deficits causes many students to become disengaged from school. Students with disabilities may be even more vulnerable.

Not surprisingly, it turns out that a strengths-based approach to learning improves students’ classroom engagement and their overall school achievement. Additionally, a strengths-based approach contributes to children’s general happiness—no small thing in the face of the growing mental health challenges that many children and youth were facing even before the advent of the pandemic.

The California Department of Education (CDE) and many professionals in schools and local educational agencies (LEAs) in the state are examining a proposed universal IEP template that integrates a strengths-based, student-focused approach to IEP plans and process, and thus into all aspects of schooling for students with disabilities.

Strengths-based IEPs

According to Patricia Pelino, director of special education services for the Redwood City Schools, successful IEPs begin with a positive, strengths-based attitude among IEP team members. They must believe, she says, that “every child will develop and learn, no matter the disability.” She talks about the importance of focusing on assets when developing an IEP.

Pelino believes that by setting students up to use their strengths and by giving them the tools and strategies “that they need to cope with challenges and manage their own behavior, school will be a place of success for them.”

She gives the example of one of her students who was on the autism spectrum. “When students with autism start feeling they can’t self-regulate and when they have no way to communicate,” she says, they often exhibit difficult behaviors. “This student had very, very difficult behaviors.” With no way to deal with his frustrations, the child’s behavior escalated. “And teachers,” says Pelino, “tend to focus on the behavior.”

With Pelino’s direction, the boy’s teachers “started to look into his strengths. He loves to read, he loves to draw, he loves tactile and sensory tools.” With this information, the teachers collected high-interest books for him. “Then we developed a sensory toolbox to help him when his behavior escalated. And we had a visual chart so he could express his emotions.” By making these supports available to the child and helping him learn how to use them, “we saw a significant de-escalation of his behavior.”

“This child is now doing beautifully,” she says. “He found a way to express himself, and we found a way to work off his strengths.”

Pelino says that educators often expect children with disabilities to thrive in the contexts that adults prefer. Rather, she says, “For children with disabilities we need to ask ourselves, ‘What is the best way for them to learn?’” The best IEP, she says, writes the answer to that question into the educational plan, listing for each child the appropriate tools, strategies, accommodations, and modifications, along with the barriers to learning. This focus not only helps to remove the barriers to a child’s progress, it shifts the blame away from the child and the disability by seeking solutions in the environment.

Pelino has high praise for occupational therapists who “are becoming our stars. We work together as a team to modify the classroom so that it is suitable for the children. When classrooms are changed, you’ll see a huge difference” in the school success of students with disabilities—and other students as well. Not surprising, Pelino is an advocate of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) as the first organizational principle for every classroom.

Another approach to developing a strengths-based IEP involves changing the way we talk about students, says Juliet Anyanwu, program specialist for the Supporting Inclusive Practices (SIP) Project and adjunct professor in teacher preparation programs. “Language matters,” she says.

In her experience, “new teachers sometimes write in IEPs ‘This student can’t. . . ’ and that phrase can be so limiting and negative and has the potential to make parents and students feel defeated.”

In the IEP and throughout all interactions with students, she says, “We need to use language that is flexible and that provides opportunity for growth. By simply rephrasing a statement like ‘The student can’t’ or ‘The student won’t’ to read instead, ‘This student is not yet able to,’” she says, teachers introduce possibilities and potential to parents, other teachers, service providers, and, most importantly to the students themselves. “Even if a student has low scores across the board, we need to highlight their relative strengths,” says Anyanwu.

Research bears this out: students thrive when they believe that they are capable and can use their existing abilities to advance their efforts. Even a small success in a supportive environment can breed more success.

Anyanwu generally practices student-first language. When she works with older students, though, she individualizes her language by asking how they prefer to be talked about.

Student-Focused IEPs

A student-focused IEP is not difficult to imagine, especially if a strengths-based approach is in place. “It starts with the student,” says Megan Gross, special educator in the Poway Unified School District. “It’s one of my favorite things to do,” she says, and she has made it part of her practice. “As educators and school staff, we get caught up in our lingo, our acronyms. But starting with the student shifts all of that.”

Anyanwu agrees. In her previous work as an instructional coach, she encouraged classroom teachers and case managers to include students in conversations about their own educational plans and in their IEP meetings. Her advice was to start early, start small, and develop each student’s direct involvement through the grades.

“I’ve seen IEPs at the kindergarten level where the students come in, tell mom and dad what they’re really good at, and show them what they’re working on,” says Anyanwu. “These are aspects [of the meeting] that almost all kids can be involved in.” When students are included in this way, she says, “they get used to taking part” in the meetings, and that involvement increases a student’s self-awareness and confidence, making the IEP itself a familiar and expected part of their education.

Gross asks her students to prepare an All About Me presentation. “We do this usually at the beginning of the year and edit it as it gets closer to the [IEP] meeting,” she says. The presentation gives the student the opportunity to share “who they are, what they like to do, what they are interested in when they’re not at school, what books they read.” As children get older, she says, “then we get into the school aspects—what they see as their strengths, where they think they need support, and what that support looks like.”

Anyanwu and Gross both view early involvement as critical to removing the stigma of disability and supporting students to understand the purpose of the IEP and its potential to serve them.

“If they truly understood what the document means,” says Anyanwu, “they would be able to utilize it as a liberatory tool, a means to advocate for themselves.” She tells the story of a student who started being present and active in her meetings in early middle school. This involvement “empowered her. Being part of those meetings made her more aware and engaged. She started to understand the process and wanted to know more about what she needed to do to meet her goals. She started monitoring her own progress. She was able to meet her goals well before the school year ended.”

In effect, IEP involvement can teach students the skills they need, “the strategies they need to pivot and adjust” so that eventually, says Anyanwu, “they’re able to thrive without the plan.”

Uppermost in Anyanwu’s mind is what happens when students leave the kindergarten-through-grade-12 (K–12) system and have to navigate the world as young adults. And how student-focused IEPs can support their success.

“In K–12, we the educators are the ones initiating the IEP process, but once the student leaves that system, the student is the initiator,” she says. “We want students to be great advocates for themselves. The sooner we start having those conversations” about self-advocacy, she says, the more aware students become about both their strengths and the accommodations they need, regardless of the setting in which they find themselves.

Research shows that when young adults with disabilities know how to advocate for themselves, understand and can articulate their rights and responsibilities, and are not ashamed of the fact that they had an IEP, they have a better chance of thriving as adults. The safe and supportive context of the IEP meeting may be one of the best places for students to gain these skills and attitudes.

Student-led IEPs

Tom Jacobs doesn’t distinguish between a strengths-based IEP and a student-focused IEP. When an IEP is well-executed, he says, they are one and the same.

As a special educator, Jacobs has been guiding IEPs his entire career. And since 2008, his IEP meetings have all been more than strengths-based and students-focused. They have all been student-led.

Jacobs works in Mitchell High School in Colorado Springs. With some one-time federal funding in 2008, his district hired “transition liaisons” to help schools figure out how to implement student-led IEP meetings.

“I was required to do it the first year,” says Jacobs, admitting some reluctance. “But it was in my second year that I was convinced it was going to be my practice.” The growth that he saw in students in just two years, he says, was remarkable. “Every year they just get better.”

Jacobs draws a direct line between student-led IEPs and the self-advocacy skills that Anyanwu talks about as critical to success in adult life. “When a student is leading his own meeting,” says Jacobs, “he’s advocating for his own needs.” The students who participate in their own meetings, he says, “learn to use their voices and have them heard.”

Jacobs regularly talks with students who have been leading their IEP for at least two years. “You hear the students say, ‘When I started doing this, I was nervous, but now it’s no big thing.’ And that’s exactly the point. We want to get them to be where speaking in front of a group, talking about their strengths and the things they need, is just something they do. When they have that skill and that comfort level, it becomes another tool they have” to navigate school and the world after.

A pull quote from the text the reads:

The Fear

The biggest fears that educators have of student-led IEP meetings, says Jacobs, involve “time and legal liability. Unfortunately, the two play together. We often don’t have enough time to do the things we’re legally required to do,” he says. “And there is so much to accomplish” in a meeting. Many teachers, he says, don’t believe they have the time to let the student lead.

Jacobs admits that in most meetings, students “don’t use all the legal terms. They don’t have the educational jargon that we’re used to associating with an IEP meeting. It’s one of those things I’ve had to learn to let go of.”

To address these concerns, Jacobs and his staff developed a PowerPoint template that every student uses and customizes for each meeting. This template includes the necessary components of an IEP meeting, says Jacobs, “so the team can relax knowing that all of the legal requirements are being covered. I’ve learned to trust in the process.” A document like a customized PowerPoint template (example) can be attached to the IEP plan and serve as a valuable supplement.

The IEP meeting, he says, “is really about building a relationship and rapport with the families.” A sense of trust, he says, is especially necessary “when parents go through the grieving process as they readjust their expectations and hopes and dreams for their student.”

Improved Relationships with Parents

The IEP team dynamics change dramatically, says Jacobs, when the student is in charge. “When a teacher leads the IEP meeting,” he says, “it becomes easy for that teacher to be the target when there is any information that the parent or student doesn’t like—just because it happens to be coming from the teacher who happens to be in charge.

“But if the student is talking about his or her own limitations, it’s likely not going to be a confrontation between the student and the parent about what the student can’t do.” In a student-led meeting, says Jacobs, typically “the parent and the educator line up behind the student and support her as a team. The structure just lends itself to a more collaborative approach.”

Even though student-led IEPs require more time and work before meetings, Jacobs says, “ultimately they’ve made things easier. I find myself in far fewer fights” with parents. The extra time he puts into the meeting by working with students and helping them develop their presentations “makes the process much smoother for everybody. Our relationships with families and parents have improved,” and these improved relationships “decrease our risk of legal liability.

“I’ve seen more parents cry at IEP meetings” since they have become student-led, he says. “But they’re crying because IEP meetings used to be punitive,” and parents attended expecting to hear laundry lists of all the things their student couldn’t do. “I’ve worked with many parents,” says Jacobs, “who have had medical or other professionals tell them what their student would never do. A student-led meeting shows parents what their child can do, especially when they’re being supported.” The tears parents now cry, says Jacobs, are tears of amazement and joy.

One of Jacobs’ favorite stories is about a student who asked if he could invite his girlfriend to his IEP meeting. Jacob admits responding at first with mild disbelief, but then he realized that the student’s request indicated how “we had fundamentally changed what an IEP meeting was for this student.” Rather than a “dreaded event,” an IEP meeting had become “something in which he took pride and felt accomplished. That was powerful!

“As recently as last week,” says Jacobs, “one of my students had gone around the school, unbeknownst to me, inviting all of his teachers and several administrators to his upcoming IEP meeting. At this point, it doesn’t surprise me anymore, but it continues to remind me that we’re doing the right thing.”

A World of Opportunities

“A professional filmmaker,” he says, “helped us put together a documentary about one of my former students.” In the film, the student talks about the skills she developed through her involvement in her own IEPs, and how those skills inspired her to “go into schools and talk to other students at other schools” about leading their own IEPs and developing self-awareness, confidence, and advocacy skills.

She inspired one particular fifth-grade boy. The film shows her watching him direct his own meeting. “At the very end of the film,” says Jacobs, “his mother is talking about when he was small. She was told that he would never speak, and he’d be very limited. And now we see him standing up and advocating for his own needs.”

The video is called Aireonna’s Journey—IEP Student-led Meetings: Self-directed IEPs through My Eyes (this video takes a little time to load).

The Basics

The following guidelines appear in nearly every resource about student-focused, strengths-based IEPs:

  • Include the student. Whenever possible, ask the student to actively participate in IEP meetings.
  • Ask students to think about and identify their strengths, interests, and preferences.
  • Learn as much has you can about the student’s abilities and how they are actively demonstrated.
  • Ask students about their dreams and goals for themselves.
  • Ask parents to share what they see as their child’s strengths and how the child shows those strengths.
  • Think about ways to enhance abilities, interests, and preferences.
  • Ask about a student’s needs and weaknesses. Think about the strengths as a roadmap for addressing weaknesses.
  • Be thoughtful and strategic about how you integrate the strengths and abilities into IEP goals and objectives. Build goals that take advantage of students’ strengths.

Additional Resources

Let Me In The Room

by Jennifer Msumba, singer, songwriter, and author who grew up with a disability

“Wait out here,” They said. “We’re just going to talk for a bit. Then it’s your turn.”


They think I don’t know that all the best stuff is being said while I’m out in the hallway?

All the stuff I want to hear. . . and don’t want to hear, is being said without me present.

They probably think I can’t handle it, understand it, or won’t like it. But it’s about me. I deserve to be in my own meeting!

By the time They call me in, decisions have already been made.

On this team, I’m a spectator, not a player. I don’t get to get down into the mud and fight.

I want to fight! I want to defend my goals and aspirations. They might seem lofty to these doctors, teachers, case workers, and even my family. But they are my dreams.

I believe I can go far. On the inside, I know I have a destiny like everybody else. And that destiny is not “Jennifer will comply with therapy for a period of six months.” “Jennifer will have less than two episodes of noncompliance a month.”

Boring! And. . . who is that perfect? When I don’t want to do something, it’s a big deal. It is noncompliance. But when a “regular” person doesn’t want to do something, it’s a choice. Be it a bad or good one, it’s a choice. And they get to live with the consequences.

I am not a list of “wills” and “won’ts.” I am a whole person. I might have challenges, I might even appear different than most, but I am a whole person.

When I become an adult, I may want to do adult things—drive, drink a beer (but not at the same time; that would be a bad choice), have a girlfriend or boyfriend, or even get married.

I want to live my life.

I need to make mistakes if I’m going to learn and grow. I know They want to protect me, but sometimes the best way for me to learn is to let me try.

I just might surprise you. I might surprise myself!

So let me in the room when the things are being said.

Listen honestly when I tell you that I don’t want to bag groceries.

Listen with a true, open heart and ears when I tell you I want to be a writer. That I want to write songs that soften people’s hearts. I want to write books that challenge their minds.

Believe in me, because nobody can know the future.

My destiny is not spelled out in a treatment plan.

I know you care. I know you want to help me, protect me, and you want the best for me. I am thankful for the help I am given.

So please just let me in the room. Let’s fight side by side for the things that matter.

Let’s make goals out of my dreams, and peel off the label I’ve been given.

Just let me in the room.


(To hear Jennifer Msumba read this work, click here .)

A photograph of Sean Spence in a cap and gown using the motorized chair that allowed him to "walk" across the stage at his college graduation to receive his diploma.

What I Learned That Can Help Others

by Sean Spence, speaking for those who cannot

I was born with birth trauma. Because of an accident, I was delivered in an emergency Caesarean operation that left me with a diagnosis of “Cerebral Palsy, spastic.” My poor eyesight, my balance problems that prevent me from walking, and my need for math tutoring are all likely due either to a stroke I had right after birth or the mild oxygen deprivation to my right temporal lobe during my birth.

Early Life

Shortly after birth, I went to live with my grandmother, and I have remained with her ever since. She created for me a wonderful childhood. From the start she was my first and best ally. My daily friend and companion, she created a room specifically for my play needs. She purchased toys that stimulated my hands and my thinking. She placed trains mounted at eye level so I could play with them. She purchased a small indoor roller coaster and buckled me in the chair so I could ride safely and have fun. She turned large refrigerator boxes into spaceships, and we made up stories about our adventures. As I grew older, we played competitive computer games.

Outdoors, I had a chair made from plastic pipes with a belt to keep me sitting up while I played in a small wading pool. I had a screened tent in the backyard where I pretended I was camping. Inside my tent were tables with a sand tray and water to make sandcastles. We had an aboveground swimming pool where I practiced floating and swimming. Part of our backyard had a section for campfires with pine trees all around. Neighbors would be invited over to roast hot dogs and marshmallows.

My grandmother read to me for an hour each night before bed. Then she would massage my stiff muscles before sleep. She was my only playmate until I started school. I am glad I had this time to know life could be fun and I could be happy.

Grade School

In first grade, my awareness of the differences between myself and other children grew. The first time I went through school doors I thought, “Hey! Where are all the wheelchairs? There are no people who look like me.” I suddenly felt alone because of my chair. I could not sit near the other students or whisper in their ears like they did to each other because of my wheelchair. I had to sit at a table by myself.

I watched them make friends while I could not seem to, even though I tried. I smiled and told them hello. They smiled and waved goodbye.

I knew why I had CP, why I was in a wheelchair, and why the other students were not. Nevertheless, I still wanted to be like them. Perhaps this was my first experience of anger about what I could not do. I was thinking, “This is how it is going to be for me. No matter where I go, I will be the different person.” It tortured my heart to have this dose of reality.

I experienced little indoor or outdoor fun at my school. I had no plan for recess. I could not participate in the activities or use the playground equipment other students used, and I was left alone to drive around on the asphalt in circles.

I told my grandmother that recess was boring, so she came to school to watch. She saw me going in circles and requested an IEP meeting. As a result of this meeting, a physical therapist was assigned to engage me in inclusive play with fellow students. This set my inclusive plan, and I never again drove my chair in circles out of boredom as if I had lost my mind. This plan allowed me and everyone else to know that I was able to play games with some simple accommodations. I enjoyed the equality with my peers in this one area at least.

This was my first conscious experience of what it means to have an adult ally. I asked for help from an adult, my grandmother, and I received it. This also was a start in making me think that, if I had some accommodations in this area, perhaps there were other areas where I could get help and join in with the other kids. I wanted to find my way to fit in, by playing at recess with my class or working on a school project with other students.

There were other experiences of inclusion that kept me going and started me thinking I was going to begin to enjoy school and gain friends. Feeling this way made doing schoolwork more important, so I worked harder to get good grades.

I started developing confidence, and my grandmother again showed herself to be a true ally. She scaffolded my lessons until I could work on my own. She would see what I could do with an assignment, and then we planned how I could break down any trouble areas. Sometimes she would try several plans and then back off while I practiced how to do the work. After that, she would offer her support only when I made errors or asked for help. She monitored my work on occasion, but she would not do my work for me. She always told me she needed to know I could survive in my life when she was not around.

Because of my grandmother’s support, my grades from first to fifth grade were average. I did continue to have difficulty with my vision when reading, as I struggled to stay focused on a line of text. To help me, my assistant and my grandmother would hold a small ruler under each line on the book page.

Fifth grade is where my education changed. My teacher pushed me to read a whole lot more. I think she had confidence that more work on my reading would help me catch up with the other learning I had missed. She was right, and she became my favorite teacher. She took time for me and believed that I had the ability to read better and learn at a fifth-grade level along with my classmates.

In grade school I was also hurt badly a few times because caregivers were not trained well in how to assist me and not trained in following IEP instructions and in reporting processes for when accidents occurred. When my grandmother saw the bruises after the last major incident, she hired a disability lawyer to help improve my IEP and address the times I was hurt at school. The problems ended. From this experience, I learned that, in addition to my grandmother and my fifth-grade teacher, there were legal and other support agencies and resources to help me improve my life. I learned that no one could know everything, and, when necessary, I could find help to make changes.

By seventh grade my word recognition skills had increased a lot, although I still used the ruler. Eyeglasses did not help at first, but I had been given the wrong prescription. Then my vision was re-evaluated (at a special UC Berkeley vision clinic) and corrected. The new eyeglasses made my vision better, and my reading improved even more.

High School

Even with the right glasses, I was not a fast enough reader to keep up with the volume of reading that was required in junior high and high school without the help of additional technology. Through my IEP I had a professional evaluate me for technology needs. No good solution was found until college (where the Kurzweil 3000 program was provided to me. I made good use of this program because it read my books to me). Because of my speech problems, the school felt that the Kurzweil 3000 program would not assist me in my dictation of work. And because the program was expensive and would only be used by one student (me), my IEP team thought it was not cost effective and went beyond what was a reasonable accommodation to provide to a disabled student.

Even though I did not have a device that would read my assignments to me, I was still determined to stay equal with peers. This only happened for me because of my grandmother. It’s important for everyone to know that some of the most effective accommodations do not need technology. But not all disabled students have family to assist them, so they can be slowed down and discouraged in their education. Finding someone outside your family to read to you and help you with time management also requires money.

I was lucky. The caregiver/assistant at school and my grandmother made a communication plan about what was discussed in the classroom and the daily assignments. This plan allowed me to do assignments piecemeal to meet deadlines. For instance, if a research paper was due at the end of a class semester, I started it on the first day of class to give me the extra time I needed.

High school classmates at the top of their grades were hired to provide occasional tutoring, especially in math. Informally studying with other students was not possible because high school people did not want to be seen with me. I could not hold papers or books, and I still had vision problems. And sometimes others could not understand my speech.


I had no choice about the college I attended, as it had to be in the same county I lived in due to finances. My goal in college was to get my master’s degree in psychology. My grandmother continued to be my best support, helping me study.

There were no physical accommodations for my hygiene needs at my first college. I advocated for a disabled bathroom. To my surprise, they eventually put one in, including an electric changing table, an electric Hoyer lift, lots of room, and a lock on the door. It was the first disabled bathroom (not just a stall) in all the colleges we knew of in the state of California. When I got into my four-year university, it was the same bathroom situation. I advocated for the same type of disabled bathroom, but it did not happen until I had graduated. That is okay. I have left a gift for those who come behind me. They will have this bathroom, which will make it possible for them to spend more time in class.

The four-year college I attended had a department that proctored students during tests and provided guidance from education counselors. I chose a different path and negotiated with my professors to take the tests in and out of the classroom using a proctor to read the tests to me and write down my answers. The privilege of this accommodation helped me to feel more equal with my classmates.

The university’s technology department put the Kurzweil program on my laptop. This enabled me to have my books read to me more quickly and allowed me to keep up with my classwork, eliminating the need for more accommodations.

My grandmother and I advocated for a long time for me to get a new chair that makes it possible for me to stand in an upright position and move. It also goes back down into the sitting position. I cannot use my legs, but using this chair was just about as good. I finally got it before I finished my degree.

At my graduation, this new chair allowed me to actually walk across the stage, which made me feel equal to the other graduates. I looked the professor in the eye while I reached to receive my diploma, and then walked back to my seat with the other graduates. Even though I have not completed a master’s program yet, I felt that I had reached an important goal: to be equal with others. I was proud of the self-determination and self-advocacy skills that I learned and used to get to this point in my life.

Networking into Adult Life

The California Transition Alliance (CATA) was a turning point in my life. In my junior year in college, I was invited to tell my story at the organization’s Bridge to the Future IV institute in Los Angeles.

I had no idea how large the audience would be. For a few minutes I felt overwhelmed to be the person speaking to all these people. Up until this convention, I had only spoken before a classroom of 30. I swallowed hard and told my story.

I shared my goal: wanting to live my life, not just exist. I talked about my network of people and how important friends are in my life. My story also included my fears of not finishing school, my dreams of being employed and having enough money to make choices in my life, my expectation to live independently, and the hope that I may be able to drive someday. I wanted other disabled individuals in this audience to fully live their lives, too.

A quote from Sean Spence: "I shared my goal: wanting to live my life, not just exist."

A quote from Sean Spence: “I shared my goal: wanting to live my life, not just exist.”The Youth Strand I participated in at this institute connected me with youth team leaders, such as Kevin Fortunato and Chris Coulston, who spoke to me about self-determination and self-advocacy. They said if they could teach self-advocacy and self-determination, then so could I. Chris declared, “Self-determination is my oxygen.”

The torch has been passed, and now I am spreading the word about how disabled people are able people. In addition, I learned about resources I had not known before, for example CA TA’s Let’s Work! California, which has been a great guide for me and others. It describes how to make goals, work as a team, make network connections, look at what I am good at and what I like to do. I also learned how to network on a bigger scale, keep track of connections, and write journals about my experiences, which will all help me find employment.

My connections and opportunities continued to grow. I was asked to tell my story in a PSA called MythBusters, and through this invitation I made more connections. I helped develop Let’s Work! CA Networking Activity Guide, which is distributed to students, special education teachers, and administrators throughout California and across the United States. I was asked again to tell my story and introduce people in the 2022 Bridge to the Future institute. Then a mentor from this event asked if I would tell my story to one of her special education teacher’s classes through Zoom. This amazing networking has now connected me to The Special EDge newsletter and a request that I write my story, which will now be reaching a different audience for the advancement of children and the larger disabled community.

My network cohorts taught me that self-determination does not mean using only my own efforts. We can engage with others for help. Seeing others like myself being successful in work and life helps to motivate me to continue working toward my dreams.

Understanding Disability

A quote from Sean Spence: “There is much work to do to correct how people understand disability.”There is much work to do to correct how people understand disability.

A quote from Sean Spence: "There is much work to do to correct how people understand disability."

I am part of the largest marginalized group of people in the world, and I want to lessen some of the most common prejudices in our society. In both school and public life, people have focused on my visible, physical disabilities and my neurodiverse impairments. During one teacher-parent meeting, a teacher told my grandparents and me that I should be institutionalized because I was not going to go anywhere in life. This could have stopped me from ever trying to succeed in life. I was lucky that my grandparents didn’t listen. But while this teacher’s bias provoked in me the determination to do what I could do and be proud of what I could do, her attitude could defeat others.

Then when people tell me how it is so inspirational to think I could have a degree or job, I usually just smile—although what I feel like saying is, “Do you think I want to sit at home or in an institution and just exist and not live my life?” That would be an unkind thing to say. However, I can only hear this so many times without feeling cranky!

Schools and teachers often fail to understand disabilities. They can behave in ways that are disrespectful and prejudiced, for example, when the educational system will not provide accommodations—such as appropriate bathrooms, technology, or life-saving emergency plans—that would help a disabled person participate in learning, or teachers who inform the IEP team that a disabled student in their mainstreamed classroom makes too much extra work and they need to be in the Special Education classroom. This is another example of prejudice in action. No school in this country should be allowed to identify a classroom by this name, “Special Education.” I would recommend banishing this and other labels from use in all concerns.

Some signs that you may be prejudiced are:

  1. You act like a disabled person’s mannerisms are more important than what they know and can do.
  2. You think disability is bad.
  3. You use language like “retard,” “crazy,” and “dumb” in conversations.
  4. You might think nothing of using disabled-only resources that you do not need, like a parking space or a designated seat on a bus.

If you want to help lessen prejudice against disability in our society, help the disabled minority advance. Learn about ableism. Hire people with abilities and skills, who just happen to be disabled physically or mentally. Work toward better accessibility for the disabled. Use language that does not use labels. And do not assume all disabled people must be depressed. Know your facts and get to know the person.

My grandmother accepted my disability. While she felt sad this happened to me, this is where her sadness ended. She focused on my survival and knew that thriving depended on my learning to do what I could. She told me that, if I could not do something, I should ask for help. She demanded that I develop a strong work ethic so I did not fall into thinking, “Oh, poor me. I have a disability. There is nothing I can do about challenges.” She also told me that if I did not make an effort in life, I may find myself in a sad and depressed state. She did not want this happening to me.

My Advice for IEPs

Not all my IEPs were great. But they all could have been great. The IEP process is a solid way to keep track of how students like me are progressing and reaching their goals and to support them. Looking back at my IEPs, I see now that I had no voice until my junior year of high school. I would tell disabled students the following about IEPs:

It can be scary when you are in an IEP meeting that includes many adults and just you the student. Help your parents or other family members understand you need their support. Ask them to attend the meeting with you and back up your ideas with their comments.

Parents can provide information on your strengths and weaknesses, background information on your history and development, and information on any family factors that may affect your learning. Parents should also be prepared to offer insight into whether current strategies and instruction are helping you learn (even when not specifically asked) and provide suggestions for change and improvement.​

Here are my best meeting tips for students:

  • If your parent or parent representative cannot be there to support you, ask a teacher you are comfortable with to attend the meeting with you.
  • If a parent or guardian cannot support you in the IEP process, talk with them about their fears. Ask them to try writing a letter stating what they cannot give voice to and present the letter to the IEP team. A letter like this would get discussion moving.
  • You may feel singled out at the IEP meeting. However, remember that you are singled out because you are the focus of all these IEP team members who want to help you and get you through school with as much success as possible. When they ask you questions about how school is going, tell them. Never think your voice is not important in this process. It is your plan!
  • Be specific and detailed when describing a problem. If the solution that others are proposing is not fitting your needs, speak up! I made the mistake of not saying anything for too long because I felt intense pressure from the IEP team to just go along with their ideas about my education needs. The adults on the IEP team were all well-educated people. I felt small in comparison. After I used my voice, they seemed to not be scary giants anymore. The best action is for both the student and IEP team members to work and support each other in creating the IEP goals.

As I look back, I now see how IEP meetings were a place to practice my self-determination skills and to voice what I wanted. IEP meetings can be used to practice the power of your voice—a power you will use for the rest of your life.

Here are my recommendations for adults in IEP meetings:

  • Do not discount what students think is a problem or how they need the problem to be solved.
  • Encourage, encourage, encourage their voice! All the measurable goals and progress accounts created at IEP meetings need to include their voice in the planning. If not, you will impair the students’ journey to becoming their best self-advocate and their best self.
  • Keep wording and statements simple.
  • Advocate for the caregiver/educational assistant to attend the meetings to offer their perspective on the IEP plans. My caregiver/educational assistant was not allowed to attend. She knew me very well and would have been an asset to the IEP team.
  • If the student uses a wheelchair, create an evacuation plan if the school does not have a specific plan in place. The plan should cover earthquakes, fires, and shooters. Include all teachers and resource people in developing the plan. During school evacuations, I was forced to stay in the classroom in my wheelchair until everyone else had left—until I used my voice for change. Remember to explain how wheelchairs cannot go over debris on the floor. You will want to require answers about who will step in and manually get the student out of the chair and to safety if necessary.

I hope I have given students, parents, and teachers ways to make IEPs better and broadened their understanding of disability. I also hope my story has helped readers understand how self-determination and self-advocacy are important for students with disabilities to succeed.

Additional Resources

A group of educators sitting around a table and celebrating their work together.

Relationships Matter

Human beings learn through relationships. We develop our most important skills—for language, social interactions, problem solving, even some of our physical movements—within the context of our earliest relationships with parents, siblings, and caregivers. Conversely, when our circumstances don’t allow us to form relationships, we don’t develop well. We certainly don’t thrive.

In effect, relationships are what make us human.

At the same time, parents are biologically wired to protect their children. And when parents are first made aware of their child’s disability, those protective instincts tend to kick into high gear—and they can remain close to the surface as parents are introduced to the professionals whose job it is to help them navigate the world of disability services and special education.

Adding to this dynamic are the complexities of the disability itself, the power dynamics between school and home, the limited resources that often plague school districts, and the prospect of real-life consequences for a child. It’s no wonder that the meetings for an Individualized Education Program (IEP) can become landmines of tension and conflict. While competing agendas among IEP team members can complicate these meetings, the agenda of the parent for the child is typically the most important, making the relationship between team members and the parent central to an IEP’s success.

Generations of committed parents, educators, and service providers have discovered strategies for ensuring good working relationships among IEP team members, not just for the good of the meeting, but for the ultimate purpose of the meeting itself: the education of the child.

Welcome Parents

The law requires at least one parent (or parent representative) of the student to be part of an IEP team. For good reason. While teachers and service providers are often in a child’s life for a single school year, parents are present from birth and usually well into a child’s adulthood. This makes them a source of important information about the child’s history and development, the child’s strengths and challenges, and other factors that may affect learning.

Mindy Fattig, senior advisor for California’s statewide System of Support at the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence, sees the parent as “a critical partner in the IEP. They know the student the best. Without their involvement, how can we ensure that we’re actually meeting the needs of the student?”

Yet research indicates that many parents don’t feel welcomed in IEP meetings. Parents of color in particular “have negatively experienced IEP meetings” and feel marginalized and “shut out of decision-making.” In another study, families from many backgrounds described traditional IEPs as “limited to listening to information about their child’s education and answering questions,” leaving parents with the sense that their participation is simply a legal obligation that schools have to fulfill.

What can be done to make parents feel welcomed? Megan Gross, a special education teacher at the Poway Unified School District and California Teacher of the Year in 2017, believes that teachers and school districts can do a great deal to break down the barriers that exist between home and school and create constructive, working relationships.

Connect Before the Meeting

“IEP meetings themselves can be tense and uncomfortable,” says Gross. But that doesn’t preclude their success if some groundwork is laid before the meeting. Gross has experience, having attended these meetings as both a professional and a parent of a child with an IEP.

In her role as special educator, “I try to email families a set of questions before the meeting” to gather information about the child—their hopes for the future, their strengths and challenges, and the strategies that are working well for them and those that aren’t.

Gross says that “even a simple phone call home gives parents a chance to ask questions about the process.” That call, she says, can “make the meeting feel less formal and sterile” and more inviting. Personal contact with a family before a meeting is especially important “if you’re going to be talking about something new.” Giving parents a heads-up helps to prevent them from feeling blindsided or confused.

IEP meetings typically have strict time limits. Engaging with parents beforehand keeps meetings from becoming a blur of confusing information for them. “Otherwise,” says Gross, “you’re just talking at people for an hour and a half and at the end, parents wonder ‘What are we doing? You just told me my kid has a learning disability and doesn’t learn the same way, and I don’t understand how to process this. Now you want me to sign a legal paper?’”

Heather Richardson is also a fan of the “pre-IEP meeting” meeting. Richardson is an early childhood general educator in Humboldt County. In her experience, giving information to family members about “what the meeting will look like and helping them prepare for the assessment reports and all the jargon” can go far toward ensuring that the actual meeting is more productive. Connecting with parents beforehand, she says, lays the groundwork for collegial relationships with family members.

Gross tells the story of her first IEP meeting as a parent. She attended with her husband. “He’s a PhD and a scientist. And after that meeting, he said, ‘What was any of that about?’

“That was a red flag,” says Gross. ‘I think my husband is pretty smart. But in special education, we speak in this other language.”

Honor the Role of Parents

Because of “this other language”— legal terminology and educational jargon—IEPs can be “incredibly overwhelming and intimidating” says Gross. “How can we make parents feel empowered to participate?”

Juliet Anyanwu starts by honoring the expertise of parents. Anyanwu, a program specialist with the Supporting Inclusive Practices Project, acknowledges the fine line that educators walk. “We are the experts on teaching, curriculum, pedagogy, and theory; but parents come [to IEP meetings] with their own funds of much-needed knowledge. When I think about a team, I think about building capacity and capitalizing on each person’s strengths. The knowledge that parents have about their child is their strength.”

In Anyanwu’s experience, gathering and using that knowledge helps engender a good working relationship among team members and creates effective IEP meetings. “Sometimes it’s not what we say, it’s how we say it,” she says. She asks questions about the student, taking an “inquiry stance,” which she says, “helps the family to know that theirs is an important place in the IEP process.”

Richardson also encourages educators to “remind parents that they’re the boss. They’re in charge.” This fact, she says, is too easily forgotten. “Sometimes parents get so focused on what their single case carrier is saying or telling them about their child that they forget there is this entire team of people and system that is there to support their child.”

Respect Emotions

Jennifer Lucas is a community program specialist with the California State Council on Developmental Disabilities. The council advocates, promotes, and implements policies and practices that support individuals with disabilities to achieve self-determination, independence, productivity, and inclusion in all aspects of community life, including in education. Lucas, too, has attended IEP meetings as both a professional and a parent.

“There are all different types of relationships in an IEP,” she says, ticking off the various roles most often represented on an IEP team: teacher, special educator, school or district administrator, and service provider, in addition to parent. “But with parents, the meeting is personal. For them, there is an emotional component” to the development and implementation of an IEP.

Gross agrees. “When IEP teams are working really well together,” she says, it’s because “people make the time and the space for the emotion.” This dimension makes the work of the IEP team “different from all the other work that we do,” says Richardson. “And it changes everything.”

Teacher training programs and staff development plans don’t often address the challenges that Gross and Lucas are referring to—how to honor and respond to the bewilderment, for example, of a parent on learning the full scope of what a disability might mean for her child, or the sense of loss a parent might experience and the need to recalibrate dreams he may have had for his child. These emotions can emerge suddenly in a meeting and can leave every team member feeling off balance.

“It’s not like all the information is at the parent’s disposal to even understand the IEP process, and this can lead to confusion, frustration, and heightened emotions,” says Lucas. “It’s critical for school staff to understand that and have empathy for where the parent is. That’s a basic part of any relationship, and it is the foundation for building good relationships and cultivating them.

“Our general advocacy advice,” says Lucas, “is to be soft on the people but hard on the issues. To be collaborative, not combative.” She has more advice for anyone at any meeting: “If you feel things are getting too heated or emotional, request a short break to get grounded. Sometimes just knowing you have that option is help enough.

“The other part is around transparency,” says Lucas, especially if the goal is to foster true collaboration. “I can’t tell you how many times parents reach out to me just completely shocked and blindsided by decisions that were made at the IEP meeting. That shouldn’t be. If you’re talking about a truly collaborative process, then nobody should be caught off guard by a decision.

“All humans want to know what’s going on. And if transparency is not there, why wouldn’t you be suspicious? Why wouldn’t you question people’s agenda and what they’re after?”

Educate Parents

Central to transparency is information—information about parental rights and responsibilities, about IEP protocols, about what may be unique to the IEP process in the child’s school, and about what options are available for the child. “The more knowledgeable parents are,” Lucas says, “the more empowered and less emotional they are. It’s the feeling of confusion, of uncertainty, of being caught off guard,” she says, that can lead to a lack of trust and breakdown in relationships.

And too many parents, she says, don’t understand the logic of the process.

IEP meetings start by describing the child’s current level of academic performance, the child’s goals, and the progress the child has made to date. Then the meetings summarize exactly what the school and district plan to do to support the child to learn and continue to progress. In essence: “present levels of performance,” “specific and measurable goals,” and “services and placement.”

“If the school could provide that kind of information,” says Lucas, “it would be great—and it would show genuine collaboration.” In her experience, conflict and even possible litigation can be avoided by giving parents “just a basic knowledge of how the IEP process works.”

This approach aligns with the experience of long-time educator and disability rights advocate Sue Sawyer, president of the California Transition Alliance. “The more educated parents are, the less inclined they are to litigate,” Sawyer says. “The less engaged and informed they are, the more fearful and the more inclined they are to seek legal help.”

If schools or districts don’t have their own formal sources of information for parents, educators can refer them to their local Parent Training and Information Center [1] or Family Resource Center. [2] Lucas has also seen Community Advisory Committees [3] (CACs) serve as important sources of parent information and training. “A robust and healthy CAC [can] result in greater parent and community attendance and involvement as well as relevant educational workshops for parents,” she says, all of which contribute to healthy relationships and trust on the IEP team.

Honor Culture

Attention to issues of culture also help to create successful relationships on an IEP team. “Number one,” says Richardson, “make sure there is someone [in the IEP meeting] who is able to clearly translate what is happening” for parents who don’t speak English. While interpreters are sometimes “hard to find for some of our families,” says Richardson, that challenge can be more readily addressed through virtual meeting platforms, which make it possible to include a translator for any language.

Patricia Pelino attends closely to “how we work with different cultures.” In her role as director of special education for Redwood City Schools, she has seen educators mistakenly assume that when families don’t speak up or speak out, they don’t care. “No,” she says. “It’s not that they don’t care. For Latinos, for example, teachers are the masters, so families often won’t talk. They won’t confront a teacher. They will be quiet and listen.” A Latina herself, Pelino encourages educators to learn about the cultures of their students and ask the family members themselves how they would like to voice ideas or disagreements. Knowledge about and respect for different cultures will go a long way toward bridging divides and developing the kinds of working relationships that best serve students.

Educate Educators

General educators are also required participants on IEP teams. And they are “more important than they know,” says Gross. “The IDEA is a beautiful, progressive piece of legislation that has considered who are essential team members. And general educators are essential.” Special educators and case carriers, who often are in charge of IEP meetings, must “let them know their value,” says Gross.

The relationships of general educators with other team members can be key to student success, says Gross, but their presence at meetings is “often treated like a ‘check-the-box. We have the person here.’ And that can lead to their disengagement.” For Gross, a disengaged response from a general educator under these circumstances is understandable. Who, she says, wants to attend one more meeting when they don’t see their value or know their purpose?

She says to the general educators she works with, “We pester you with all of these meeting invitations because you are the bearer of the standard, our state content standards.” She also provides staff training for general educators in her district on the IEP. “Many of them were not trained in their teacher preparation programs. They tell me, ‘I don’t know what I’m supposed to do in this meeting.’ Or ‘I’ve never had a student with an IEP in my class before.’” Gross works to fill in the blanks.

Families at IEP meetings want, for example, what Gross calls “a barometer.” When children are placed in inclusive settings, parents especially want to know how their child’s performance ranks with that of the other students. The general education teacher can provide that information. Special educators often don’t know things like “how many minutes each day a first-grade class spends on writing instruction,” says Gross. This kind of information is critical for creating appropriate goals and expectations for a student with disabilities. And the general education teacher is often the most qualified person to provide it.

Students with disabilities are special education students first.

During the last 20 years, the number of inclusive learning opportunities for students with disabilities has grown exponentially in the state, along with the expectation that general education teachers can adapt. Teachers whose training took place before inclusive settings became common may need to be reminded, if not learn for the first time, says Richardson, “that special education students are general education students first. That’s pivotal. We need to approach the IEP from that integrated general education setting first, and then build out those associated supports for those students. That joint collaboration in the IEP is critical.”

Collaboration is also critical for fulfilling the federal mandate of serving students within the least restrictive environment (LRE). Sawyer talks about the close connection between a student’s program and that inclusive environment. “The IEP determines the best placement for a child,” she says, and general education staff are central to the success of that placement. Most importantly, says Sawyer, “students who are in the least restrictive environment and among nondisabled peers are the students who thrive.” And when the student is thriving, relationships on the IEP tend to be good. Realizing this “goodness” requires general educators to be central players in the IEP process.

Collaborate with Outside Organizations

Once children with disabilities turn 16, plans for their transition to adult life become part of their IEP. These plans can bring into IEP meetings people from other agencies that are responsible for providing transition services. “It’s very interesting,” says Lucas, “to see people from the different organizations come together to try to figure out how to collaborate.” Her best advice for building relationships with agency representatives with differing agendas or organizational cultures is to focus on why everyone is in the room. “It’s to benefit the student,” she says, “and to improve those post-school outcomes—employment, independent living, community involvement, further education.” Maintaining that focus, she says, can help to develop positive relationships and ensure successful meetings.

Support Administrators

A school administrator (or a representative of the school system) is another required member of the IEP team. A supportive administration can be key to the general good functioning of the meeting and the entire IEP process. Many school administrators, however, know little about special education and less about IEPs. While this condition is slowly changing, Gross isn’t waiting. She has positioned herself as a support person for school administrators.

“I don’t expect them to know everything about special education,” she says. Instead, she asks them, “‘How can we support each other?’ Because when we do that work on the front end, we have a lot less conflict on the back end.” This approach, she says, “is appealing to administrators because they spend so much time navigating conflict.” And it acknowledges and honors the reality of the complicated and onerous workloads that most school administrators carry.

Reframe the IEP

Gross is always looking for ways “to break some of the stigma around the IEP.

She hopes schools and educators can “find ways for all of us to see IEPs not as this duty, but as a powerful tool, a living document” that guides general educators and special educators alike in knowing the student and “what we can to do help him be successful. And then we do that.”

Additional Resources

Two moms visiting a classroom and watching a preschool child use a colored pencil.

Improving the IEP: The Parent and Family Perspective

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) mandates that schools provide the opportunity for parents to actively participate in decisions about the education of their children with disabilities. Many of those decisions are made when parents meet with school staff at Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings to set and evaluate educational goals for their child.

When they are well prepared for the meeting, and when school staff make them feel welcome and valued, parents can be vital partners in the IEP process. But that is often only an ideal. “For most parents, an IEP meeting is very intimidating,” says Karen Ford Cull, a parent of a child with a disability and an advocate for inclusive education. “The first thing parents need to know about the IEP is what it is and how it works.”

Robin Ryan agrees. “What I hear most from families is not understanding the components of an IEP,” says Ryan, coordinator of Seeds of Partnership, an organization that promotes family engagement in special education. “Many families need to learn about the process.”

Support from Family Empowerment Centers

California’s Family Empowerment Centers (FECs) are there to help. The centers provide information, training, and resources for parents and families of children with disabilities, including how to prepare for an IEP meeting. There are currently 14 FECs serving 27 counties in the state, with more expected to open this year. All are staffed primarily by family members of children with disabilities.

“All family centers will talk with parents ahead of the IEP meeting. All will look at the IEP ahead of time and have follow-up conversations,” Ryan says.

And all will emphasize that an IEP meeting is a team meeting and that parents need to see themselves as valuable members of that team.

At Family Soup, an FEC serving Yuba, Sutter, and Colusa counties, “We remind parents that their voice is important. They know their child best,” says Executive Director Adrienne Maloney.

“Being a team member comes with rights and responsibilities. You want to be a good partner,” says Elizabeth Spencer, executive director of Westside Family Resource and Empowerment Center, which serves much of Los Angeles County. “The family, to whatever level they can, should be knowledgeable about IDEA—not an expert, but know the basics of how this is going to work for my child so you can say, ‘The law says this.’

“We do an overview of the law and direct families to the Disability Rights of California site for more detailed information,” Spencer says. Westside offers small-group clinics that provide guidance for families on such issues as how to discuss placement or get services for a child. “And we offer one-to-one IEP prep, usually at times of transition,” such as when a child turns three and services change from IDEA Part C to Part B. [1] Family centers also help with planning for another big transition: a student’s move from IDEA services and high school to adult service and post-secondary life.

Family Soup partners with Disability Rights to offer IEP trainings that cover aspects of special education law. The center also provides parents with binders full of useful information to support their efforts to become influential members of the IEP team: explanations of IDEA and parents’ rights, definitions of special education categories, acronyms used in special education, and a template for requesting an assessment or an IEP meeting.

A case manager from Family Soup will accompany parents to the meeting. Many of the centers provide this service. “We are there to support the parent and to take notes,” says Maloney. “We let them know they can take the time to ask questions; we remind them to speak up.”

But preparing for the IEP meeting isn’t just about the law. Knowing that “families benefit from the strength and experience of other families,” Maloney says, Family Soup and most FECs offer parent-to-parent support—parent mentoring—as part of their services. Westside runs an IEP support group. “Families come to the meeting, talk to other families, form community,” says Spencer.

She encourages parents to embody the “active” role that IDEA established for them. “We say to families, ‘You live with this child; don’t take for granted that the information you have isn’t important.’ Introduce the child to the people at the table; bring two pictures so we all know who we are meeting about.” And Spencer urges that the child become a team member “as early as possible.”

At SPIN, the Special Parents Information Network serving San Benito and Santa Cruz counties, most of the families are bilingual or monolingual Spanish-speaking. To bolster their confidence at IEP meetings, “We give them a book that is a composite of laws” regarding special education, says Executive Director Cece Pinheiro. “We tell them to walk into the meeting with that book and put it on the table. You get better service when you walk in with that book.”

SPIN staff do not attend IEP meetings with parents. “We counsel them to understand the system, to know what they want for their child,” says Pinheiro. “We counsel them to not be adversarial but to say, ‘This is what I’d like. How can we work together to achieve this for my child?’”

Advice from Parents

Ford Cull, who served as president of the PTA at her son’s school and ran for a seat on the Redondo Beach school board, says parents need to be proactive. “If you want to change the end of the IEP meeting,” she says, you need to be prepared at the beginning. She urges parents to “identify the strengths of the student, and come in with suggested goals that will build on those strengths.” She also encourages parents to “come to the IEP with a vision statement for their child long-term.”

“The IEP meeting is one of the most difficult experiences for a parent,” says Jessica Bean of Yuba City, whose son was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder as a toddler. “I am my son’s best advocate. I go in prepared; I’ve done research; I’ve looked into local resources.” Family Soup, she says, provides support before the meeting and “they make sure to bring up anything I might forget” during the meeting. No matter what you may wish for, Bean says, “I think it is important to go into the meeting with an open mind. You’re not always going to get everything you want, but each step is a milestone.”

"The IEP meeting is one of the most difficult experiences for a parent."

Becka York has a unique perspective on IEP meetings. She is a parent of two children with disabilities. She also is a special education teacher in the Santa Cruz County Office of Education. She urges fellow parents to express their concerns and observations prior to the meeting “so those things are on the table” and to “seek help in the community or from a parent mentor to prepare” for the meeting. As a teacher she stresses to other educators the importance of “open, regular communication with parents throughout the school year.”

Tips for Schools

While supporting parents, directors of the Family Empowerment Centers also see how schools can ensure an effective IEP process for parents.

School staff “should have an understanding that this is the person’s child, that this is emotional for them,” says Maloney. Staff “should try not to be defensive, should explain the ‘why’ of decisions, and put enough time in the calendar so that questions can be answered.”

Spencer says it is important “to assure families that they are valuable members of the IEP team and that they bring a level of expertise about the student that no one at the school has.” She urges schools to provide parents with copies of assessments and any written reports “before the meeting so they can digest the information. It’s hard to have an expert read a report.”

Parents, she says, “need to know they can visit classrooms, meet teachers. They can’t agree to a placement they’ve never seen.” Mostly, Spencer says, “It’s about really listening and, even if we don’t agree, acknowledging and respecting where the parent is coming from.”

Schools should schedule meetings at a mutually agreed time—with enough advance notice to ensure parent attendance, provide interpreters when necessary, avoid educational jargon, and ask if the parent wishes to have an advocate at the meeting. When school sites closed abruptly in March 2020, IEP meetings moved online. Many districts found that there was greater parent participation when barriers to attendance, such as lack of access to transportation and childcare, were eliminated. And many districts have continued to offer the virtual meetings.

Ford Cull and others argue for more family engagement before the meeting, whether in person or virtual. “The school should have pre-meetings with the family, especially for children with extensive support needs.” She has a vision for how to create a truly collaborative IEP team: “There should be IEP training where whole teams come and train together—parents, case managers, teachers, special educators. All would understand the goals together. That would be fantastic.”

That may be a future goal, but parents today might wish for more team members like Rachel Lewis and Sue Samuel.

Lewis, a special education teacher at Ridgeview Elementary School in Granite Bay, likes to remind parents “that we’re all on the same team. We’re all here for your child. Some parents get stuck in the here and now, but we want to hear about their hopes and dreams for the child. What is their long-term goal? We can work backwards to achieve it.”

For Samuel, a behavior specialist in the Eureka Union School District, working with families to ensure an effective IEP, is “all about knowing your audience. Find out what your parents know, may not know yet, and would like to know before any IEP meeting. I always try to contact my parents ahead of an IEP with an email and phone call to see if they have questions about my behavior report or behavior plan.

“It is our responsibility to make sure they understand all the information in an IEP no matter how long it takes so they can be the most effective advocate for their child.”

[1] Part C of IDEA provides family-centered services for children with disabilities through an Individualized Family Services Plan (IFSP). When a child turns three, those services focus more directly on the child and the child’s plan becomes the IEP, which is mandated under Part B of IDEA.

A diverse group of educators working together.

Collaboration and the IEP

Ask a special education teacher what would make it easier to collaborate with general education colleagues in the Individualized Education Program (IEP) process, and the answer is immediate: Time. Regularly scheduled time to meet. Time to plan. Time to discuss student progress on academic and social-emotional goals.

“We don’t get planning time,” says Michele Stiles, special education teacher at Greenhills Elementary School in Placer County. “If we can’t get together, we do a lot of email. I’ll write, ‘Here are the goals I’m thinking of. What do you think?”

Ask a general education teacher the same question and get the same answer.

“We collaborate from home a lot,” says Alicia Mengel, a general science teacher at Eureka City High School in Humboldt County. She and special education teacher Kristina Zabierek, who co-teach science classes, “don’t share a preparation period so it forces us to use more personal time to prepare for IEP meetings.”

The relationship is important because the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires the presence of at least one general educator on IEP teams “if the child is, or may be, participating in the regular education environment.” With the current emphasis on including students with disabilities in general education classrooms, collaboration between special and general educators can play a key role in establishing a student’s IEP goals, implementing accommodations and modifications to the curriculum, and monitoring student progress.

Time to Plan

When it works well, collaboration begins long before an IEP meeting. Stiles, the special education teacher at Greenhills, a small kindergarten-through-third-grade school in Granite Bay, and Connie Chen, a second-grade teacher at the school, say they work together to write goals for the students who will be in Chen’s class. Because second grade is the time when many students qualify to receive special education services, “we are coming up with an overall plan for the student,” says Chen. “We look at assessments. We talk about goals and what supports they need.”

At schools larger than Greenhills, Chen says, “You can feel like you are working by yourself, that ideas are being thrown at you. The general ed teacher wants to hear, ‘How can I help you with that?’”

Stiles says it is important for the general education teacher to be comfortable with the plan. “What is reasonable for the general education teacher? She needs to feel comfortable telling me if something doesn’t work or coming to me with issues about a kid. I have to be a team member, too.”

Stiles may place students with disabilities in Chen’s class or pull them out for special instruction. Because of their close working relationship, Chen says she can tell Stiles, “I would like you to push in rather than pull out. I want kids to feel this is their classroom.”

Even with a track record of successful collaboration between them, Chen said she still wishes there were more time “to meet with the whole IEP team to talk about academic and social-emotional goals.”

Time to Meet

Stephen Kinloch is a sixth-grade teacher at Ridgeview Elementary, a grades 4–6 school also in Granite Bay. He says he wishes there were more time at the start of the school year to review the IEPs of the students who will be in his classroom and to meet their parents.

“I start the beginning of the year with a class list, and the students with IEPs are identified,” he says. “We hope to get the actual IEPs as soon as possible to review on our own. The IEP is given to you, you read it, you don’t know the student. If in the first week, you got to meet with the parent and the student, that could be the springboard to a more successful year.” Kinloch says teachers have to find that time on their own.

One of the teachers with whom Kinloch collaborates is Rachel Lewis, who teaches a special day class for students with moderate to severe disabilities. Before an IEP meeting, she says, “I will have a conversation with the grade-level teachers about how my students are involved in the class, what kind of social interaction and peer relationships are developing.”

Time to Assuage Fears and Be Effective

Kinloch acknowledges “a fear in many people when dealing with certain levels of disability, a question of ‘how am I going to meet their needs?’” He says he sets aside time in his classroom for play and socializing. “Three days a week, my students play together with Rachel’s kids.”

When they attend IEP meetings, Lewis says, “We want it to be a discussion rather than a reading of reports, to talk about targeted areas of growth.” Kinloch says he sees his role as giving “an academic and social overview of what I’m seeing in my classroom from my perspective.”

During the school year there are weekly meetings “where we check in with each other,” Kinloch says, “but I wish there were more work-day time with those teachers. With staff shortages it’s even harder now.” Lewis agrees. “We’re in frequent contact,” she says, “but most collaboration is through email.”

While Kinloch receives a completed IEP for students at the start of the school year, many educators believe that general education teachers should collaborate in creating goals for students who will be in their classes. The Center for Parent Information and Resources points out that general education teachers “know the curriculum for grade levels and can talk about what the child will be taught.” That’s an area of expertise other IEP team members may not possess, and it can lead to a discussion of IEP goals and what accommodations and/or modifications will be necessary to help the student meet those goals.

“What would benefit students most is more shared time to work on goals,” says Zabierek, who co-teaches science classes in Eureka with Mengel. “Special ed teachers aren’t algebra teachers.”

The two began co-teaching this year. “The co-teaching model shows general ed teachers what special education is all about,” says Zabierek. “It shows them what accommodations mean in practice, how they are implemented.”

Mengel says she and Zabierek are “pretty seamless” in the classroom, alternating roles as lecturer and helper. “I have all the IEPs. We plan lessons together, and when I give a test, Kristina will prepare a spreadsheet with what accommodations each student needs.”

Zabierek recalls that more collaborative time was available when the school was on distance learning. “We had half an hour before school and an hour after for intervention time. If I held IEP time then, all the general ed teachers could come. It was shared time to help students.”

Now, she says, “when I talk to them [about IEP meetings], they might say, ‘I wish I could come’ or say it is too hard to leave their class.” Mengel says she will ask for a substitute “to take over the class so I can go to the meeting.”

Time to Make Them “Our Kids”

Even though all of these teachers would like more collaboration time, they all support inclusion. Yet Michele Stiles notes that there remain some feelings of “my kids and your kids” rather than “our kids” among teachers.

Robin Ryan says there is “still some resistance to inclusive collaboration, although we’ve come a long way. I’ve been working at this since 1997,” says Ryan, coordinator of Seeds of Partnership, “and I’ve seen a huge shift in more acceptance and understanding. More teachers have received training on special education, but some still had the mindset about who belongs where. There still is a huge need to continue to focus on mindset.”

When it comes to collaboration between general and special education teachers, says Connie Chen, “It takes two. The relationship matters.”

Tips for Successful IEP Meetings

To more effectively include general educators in IEP meetings and processes, special educators, case manager, and school administrators can:

  • Provide training on IEPs for all general educators
  • Before the start of the school year, give general education teachers the IEP plans of the students they will have in their classrooms.
  • Schedule time for general educators and special educators to discuss the IEP plans so that the general educators understand the accommodations and modifications their students need and are prepared to support the child in their class.
  • Provide regularly scheduled planning time for general and special educators to meet, review student progress on IEP goals, and prepare for IEP meetings. Teachers say lack of this time is the main impediment to greater collaboration.
  • Ask general educators for their preferred way to communicate with other members of the IEP team. Be respectful of their time and the way they like to work.
  • Provide copies of assessments and reports prior to the meeting.
  • When necessary, provide substitutes for general educators so they can attend meetings. Their attendance makes is possible for them to better know the student and the student’s parents.
  • Thank every team member for showing up to the meeting.

A group of educators in a library working as a team.

Getting Better at Getting Better

“Identifying where can we do better.” This statement guides the work of California’s System Improvement Leads, according to Tamara Clay, executive director of the El Dorado County Special Education Local Plan Area (SELPA). The System Improvement Leads are a collaborative project of El Dorado with two other SELPAs—Riverside County and West San Gabriel Valley. The initiative was “launched three years ago,” says Clay, as one of the Special Education Resource Leads in California’s statewide System of Support. The expressed goal of this system is to address inequities and build the capacity of local educational agencies (LEAs) to “improve teaching and learning over time, address achievement gaps, and strengthen outreach and collaboration with their stakeholders.”


The System of Support is a joint effort of the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence (CCEE), the California Department of Education (CDE), and the California State Board of Education (SBE) to improve education in the state for all students. The CCEE facilitates the many initiatives in this larger resource network.

In the summer 2016 issue of this publication, Carl Cohn reflected on the creation of the then-new CCEE. Cohn, the organization’s first executive director, said, “We’re looking to develop a thought-partner relationship” with schools and LEAs so they can gain the capacity “to improve on their own.” Identifying and owning local improvement efforts “is the formula for success,” he said. “We want to work with them, not do things to them.” This approach has shaped and informed the work of this statewide system.

Special Education

From the start, this coordinated improvement effort has capitalized on and aligned with existing structures. For students with disabilities, that means SELPAs. These regional organizations oversee, coordinate, and ensure many of the special education services and much of the state and federal financing for students with disabilities.

Taking full advantage of this established presence and influence, the CDE and CCEE designated specific SELPAs to lead efforts to improve outcomes for students with disabilities in a variety of ways: through a focus on key content areas (SELPA Content Leads) and through the efficiencies of Improvement Science. This second group—SELPA System Improvement Leads (SILs)—was charged with building the capacity of other SELPAs, school districts, county offices of education (COEs), and schools themselves in the areas of continuous improvement, data use and governance, and best practices for instruction, collaboration, assessment, and behavior. These processes ultimately result in meaningful, sustainable system improvement and better outcomes for students with disabilities.

The System Improvement Leads (SILs) support teams of educators from LEAs, customizing every improvement for each and providing training and coaching in how to identify and address the root causes of local problems. The SIL uses, in effect, the playbook of Improvement Science, an approach that has remained consistent from the System of Support’s beginning. That system currently has the Individualized Education Program (IEP) in its sites.


As a vehicle for improvement, the IEP is a smart choice, says Mindy Fattig, former SELPA director and current senior advisor for the System of Support at CCEE. In the IEP, says Fattig, “lies the potential for school success for students with disabilities, and in that program rests the success of a young adult’s transition into adult life. Every topic of special education ultimately connects to the IEP.”

The work of the statewide System of Support to improve IEPs “is being accomplished both directly and indirectly,” says Fattig. Indirectly, these improvement efforts are happening through the SELPA Content Leads, which, she says, are “providing instruction to the field in evidence-based practices for students with disabilities. The Content Leads inform the practices in the field, which then leads to writing and implementing better IEPs for students.

“We’re not creating more silos” between general education and special education, says Fattig. She points to the work in California to develop a multi-tiered system of support (MTSS) in schools, specifically to Scale-up MTSS Statewide (SUMS) as an example of a “silo-busting” and inclusive initiative within the System of Support. “The state has invested a lot of resources and money in MTSS training across resource areas for general educators and special educators together—as well as Universal Design for Learning [UDL].” Fattig sees UDL, as it is supported through the work of SUMS and the System’s Open Access Project, as foundational to what all teachers need if they are “to provide accommodations and supports for all students, regardless of label.”

While these initiatives and reform efforts contribute indirectly to strengthening IEPs, Fattig identifies two other System initiatives that are specifically targeting IEP improvements. One effort emerged organically. The other was created in the wake of the pandemic.

IEP Network Improvement Community

The state’s System Improvement Leads Project was launched three years ago, says Clay. “As part of this work, we’re creating networked improvement communities” that consist of teams of educators who meet regularly (and virtually) to “look at their data and processes for developing IEPs and identify ‘Where can we do better?’”

“Our statewide team of improvement facilitators help LEAs dig in deeply to understand what’s truly happening in their system,” says Heidi Hata, “and how they might improve.” Hata is the director of the System Improvement Lead project at the El Dorado County Office of Education. “We had 60 to 70 projects rolling with different teams,” and in 2021 “we started to see common areas of concern across these projects. One involved the breakdown of the IEP process.”

That breakdown did not involve just discrepancies among individual IEPs, but breakdowns in the IEP collectively. “Folks started uncovering real equity gaps among students. For example, students of one socio-economic status were getting one process, another group was getting another.” This disparity, says Hata, was showing up regularly.

The problem was also emerging in different ways from team to team. One team was “looking at LRE [least restrictive environment], another was looking at communication, a third at universal screeners in the general education setting. What was fascinating,” says Hata, “is that their outcomes were very different, but they all came back and said, ‘One of the root causes we’ve uncovered is that we’ve lost the ‘why’ behind our IEPs.” The IEP process and everything that it was intended to contain and represent “often is reduced to paperwork.”

As Hata and Clay were seeing this trend, Clay thought, “What if we brought folks together to work on these problems? They’re across the state, but they’re struggling with the same things. And they really want to learn together.” From these discoveries, the IEP Network Improvement Community was born.

“We started doing some data collection and formed a theory of improvement,” says Hata. “But what really launched our network was a shared belief among all of these teams that they could truly improve the IEP process for their students”—and they could improve faster by working within this community. “What you see in this community,” says Clay, “is the sharing of ideas and learning statewide.”

Interest is spreading. “Districts are talking to the districts next to them,” says Hata. “Or the case manager is talking to the case manager friend down the street. Many of these teams are now composed of several districts within their SELPAs or their county offices. They are recruiting folks. It’s been pretty thrilling to see things expand,” she says.

These teams remain fully supported. “Our responsibility,” says Hata, “is to serve as the network hub” for these efforts. “We give the teams the data protocols, something they may not have the time or capacity to develop on their own. We’ve found that if we can remove that burden and let them focus on the really important part, which is reflecting on what the data means, then they move really quickly” toward improvement—which amounts to improved outcomes for students.

“It’s important to emphasize,” says Clay, “that these improvement teams are determining and controlling the data that they’re collecting locally” and they are strengthening IEP processes in very different ways. One group is developing an IEP rubric to audit areas of the process, others are “establishing streamlined processes to track student progress on goals.” All of these teams do seem to be sharing one direction: “Teams are reframing IEP documents to move away from simple compliance and toward the true purpose of an IEP,” writes Hata in her blog post about the network.

Clay and Hata are juggling dozens of projects. What keeps them going, they say, is seeing district teams create effective approaches to school improvement, share these approaches, and generate an enthusiasm for their work that spreads statewide.

The SIL team turns no one away. Any LEA can contact the System Improvement Lead project to receive coaching or to join one of the ongoing Network Improvement Communities. To contact the System Improvement Leads for resources and support, go to https://systemimprovement.org/resources or email the system at info@systemimprovement.org

IEP Technical Support and Assistance Project

While the IEP Network Improvement Community grew from a collective need that emerged at local levels, the IEP Technical Support and Assistance project represents a statewide response to a global emergency.

Whenever school sites close but schools continue to provide services, federal law requires those schools to continue to provide services to students with disabilities as well. These services include IEP meetings. In the scramble to adjust to online protocols during the pandemic, the fact that all efforts may not have gone smoothly surprised no one.

The current focus of the CDE, says Leah Davis, “is to support California’s LEAs in ensuring that all of our students are receiving a FAPE [free and appropriate public education] by making sure that IEPs are completed in a timely and effective manner. As such, following the school closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we are catching up.” An important part of this catching up is making sure that required IEP meetings took place—or are being scheduled to take place—and the IEP plan is being implemented.

Davis is the executive director of Riverside County SELPA. While in this capacity she is a partner with El Dorado County in the System Improvement Lead project, Davis also serves as one of the four SELPAs—along with Fresno, Humboldt-Del Norte, and East County SELPA-San Diego—that received money from California’s 2021 budget to develop technical assistance and support to address IEP compliance challenges.

Immediate Goals

“The work has just started,” says Davis. “And we are triaging.” In the aftermath of the pandemic, many schools and LEAs “appear to have IEPs or initial assessments that may be overdue.”

Heather Quigley-Cook, executive director of the Humboldt-Del Norte SELPA, is working with Davis to develop this network. In some cases, they are discovering that IEP meetings were held, but “simply not recorded,” says Quigley-Cook. “It’s more a data transmission issue,” Davis says.

The project has already provided technical assistance to schools and districts on how “to clean up the data side,” says Quigley-Cook. “We’re coming up with some great tools and resources that feature clear data-reporting protocols. But first things first,” she says. And while some meetings were simply not recorded, others didn’t happen.

“Right now,” says Davis, “we’re focused on LEAs that CDE has deemed in need of intensive supports as a result of their IEP data.” The network helps those LEAs most in need of guidance to accomplish that most important “first thing”: IEP meetings that take place.

While the network is “just in its beginning stages,” says Davis, “we’re working quickly.” The project is funded for two years, with 18 months remaining, and Davis wants to accomplish more than just IEP triage. She and her colleagues will use the data they gather during this first phase to work with districts “to conduct a thorough root cause analysis” of IEP disruption, says Davis, and develop resources to help all educators strengthen the process.

This IEP Technical Support and Assistance project uses the same philosophical and practical framework that other elements of the System of Support use. As such, Improvement Science guides its efforts and ultimate goal: creating processes for continuous improvement that result in lasting change. “We’re also trying to be strategic,” says Davis, “and align our support with all of the other projects in the system, including the System Improvement Leads project.

“We want to make sure everything we’re doing is helping to build capacity at the local level with those leaders in districts, in SELPAS, in county offices, so that the work can continue and that it’s based on that true local context.” Davis is true to the System of Support’s foundational philosophy when she says that these local leaders are “best suited to make recommendations to determine what their root cause is. And it does vary” from place to place.

High-Quality IEPs

While COVID may have highlighted weaknesses in the IEP process, Davis and other educational leaders in the state were seeing those weaknesses well before the spring of 2020. “We’ve had conversations locally and statewide about improving the IEP for years,” says Davis. And the apparent weaknesses involved more than lapses in data transmission. “Many of us are shifting away from legally defensible IEPs and toward ‘What is a better IEP? What is a high-quality IEP that is going to drive student achievement and better outcomes?’”

After the project’s front-line efforts have helped districts “get back and stabilized to where they were pre-pandemic in regards to their IEPs,” says Davis, the network plans to tackle “that larger scope of work to support LEAs in writing better IEPs, higher quality IEPs. We’ve already received a lot of input from both our SELPA and LEA colleagues” on how to support LEAs to improve the IEP process.

Priority Areas

For that larger scope of work, the network has already “drafted some priority areas to focus on,” says Davis. In addition to data, these areas include how to write effective IEP goals and what kinds of modification and accommodation can and should be included in the IEP. “When I think about best practices for IEPs,” says Davis, “I also think about good facilitation skills. IEPs are emotional, and IEP conversations can be challenging. The other big area is dispute resolution.” Educators, she says, “need to know how to manage conflict, deal with it in a healthy manner, and engage in effective conversations.”

To navigate these softer-skill aspects of IEP meetings, Davis would like to build capacity among educators. “Learning those skills does not typically come from educator training. Those skills come from a different pathway, and we need to ensure that IEP team members have access to these best practices for developing better IEPs.”

The IEP, says Davis, “is not just filling in the template any longer. It’s this broader, bigger perspective.”

Larger Goals

By the time the IEP Technical Support and Assistance project is finished, Davis hopes to have “met with and coached as many teams as we can. We’ll work with our partners at the COE, SELPA, and LEA levels.” The network’s vision is for best practices for the development and implementation of high-quality IEPs to take root within local education systems.

According to Davis, the four SELPAs leading the IEP Technical Support and Assistance work are planning to “curate resources that districts can access and that allow them to engage in better IEP processes.” These resources will include such things as facilitation guides, tools, and apps to support case managers to better track IEPs. “They won’t focus simply on compliance” she says. Instead, these resources and supports will also address such goals as “student progress, school success, and improved postsecondary outcomes. That piece is a huge component,” she says.

She guides her work by continually asking, “What can we create that is sustainable and the effort is not just a one-and-done” when the 18 months of the grant are completed?

Coordinated, Comprehensive Network

The IEP is the essence of special education. The quality of all supports and services, modifications and accommodations, placements and assessments are reflected in the IEP process and plan. In effect, if the IEP is to improve, all of special education must improve.
Pull quote from the text that reads,

In response, Riverside County and Eldorado County SELPAs, under the leadership of Davis and Hata and in partnership with System Improvement Leads and the Supporting Inclusive Practices project, have developed the California Special Education Technical Assistance Network, or CalTAN.info, a website that serves as the “beginnings of the hub of curated offerings for all things special education related,” says Davis. The vision is for CalTAN to grow into the primary resource hub for educators, featuring carefully selected, evidence-based resources in key topic areas for special education: assessment, collaboration, instruction, and social emotional learning and behavior—and information about all of these things as they contribute to high-quality IEPs.

“This is a huge move in the right direction,” says Davis, “for educators to be able to go to a single space and find the information they need. We have included our partners within the Statewide System of Support as content contributors for CalTAN,” and there are plans to expand partnerships to include other components of education, “further breaking down the siloes,” says Davis, “as we continue to strive toward improving outcomes for all students. Whether it’s the System Improvement Leads, the Geographic Leads, other leads at the county level, our partners at Supporting Inclusive Practices—all of those pieces working together is key,” she says. “We’ve got this huge system. We’ve got all these gears engaged. The more that we’re working together and aligning our approaches, aligning our conversations, the more we’ll be able to move that needle for student achievement.”

Larger Coordinated Systems

Clay sees the state as having an “incredible opportunity right now. Our system was disrupted” by the pandemic, she says, “and we can put the pieces back together in the exact same way. Or we can do something different. One of the things that I find so inspiring about our teams is that, despite being tired and stressed and pulled in so many directions, they’re putting the pieces back together in a different way. They know that the core of their work is to serve students and communities. And they are excited about the opportunity to do something different and better.”

This vision sits directly in Fattig’s wheelhouse. As part of CCEE’s leaderships team, she says, “Our greater goal is to integrate systems so that we’re not letting labels drive services. It’s about getting kids what they need, and helping teachers and administrators have the skills and capacity to do that.”

“We are in the best place we’ve ever been.”

The logo of the California Transition Alliance

California Transition Alliance Institute

The California Transition Alliance (CA TA) began in 2002 as an initiative to support WorkAbility, an ongoing program that provides work experience to students with disabilities. During the intervening years, this alliance has grown to become one of the state’s premier advocates for successful transition from school to adult life for these students.

Describing this work, the organization’s president Sue Sawyer says, “We plant seeds.” For two decades, CA TA has been broadcasting the importance of the following:

  • Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) that are strengths-based, student-focused, and student-led
  • An established pathway to a high school diploma for every student
  • Secondary transition activities that are embedded throughout the IEP for all students at all ages
  • High-quality inclusive educational options for students with disabilities
  • Clear and attainable options for college and/or competitive, integrated employment for all young adults with disabilities

While not every one of these ideas has been fully realized, each has gained significant traction in the state, and each was on full display at the Alliance’s fifth statewide institute in early March: Bridge to the Future.

“Some people believe that you force change by litigation,” says Sawyer. “Others believe that you force change through education and certification. We believe that, as people learn how to do things right, they’re motivated to do things right. If effective best practices don’t take more time or money, why wouldn’t you?” The efficacy of this approach was reflected in the institute’s secondary title—“The Times They Are A-Changin’.”

Representatives of the state’s lead agencies for transition services for youth and young adults with disabilities—the California Department of Education (CDE) and the California Department of Rehabilitation (DOR)—attested to that change.

The opening event of the virtual institute featured Heather Calomese, director of CDE’s Special Education Division, who recounted the advances the state has made and is making to strengthen transition services: established and expanding quality inclusive practices, high expectations for students with disabilities through standards-based IEPs, the creation and proposal of a template for the IEP that embeds a strengths-based and student-focused approach, and progress toward creating a viable pathway to a high school diploma for every student.

Joe Xavier, DOR director, then spoke about the progress the state has made to ensure competitive, integrated employment and family-supporting wages for individuals with disabilities. Xavier was also pleased to report on the recent elimination of sheltered workshops and sub-minimum wages in California.

“Joe and Heather did a really good job talking about the changes, and the need to change,” said Sawyer as she reflected on the institute’s success. Many of the changes the state has made in transition planning services have been widely promoted, often introduced, and consistently championed by CA TA.


The institute’s focus on “College for All” was a particular point of pride for Sawyer. Several sessions explored college as an option, especially for students with developmental and intellectual disabilities. “We had an excellent representation from community colleges and the College to Career (C2C) program and the universities,” says Sawyer. Even when “students are leaving high school unprepared for the academics of college, the colleges are giving them accommodations and teaching them how to use accessibility tools. Those same students who lack academic skills the day they arrive on campus, are doing well in college. They’re passing college classes, earning certificates, and they’re going to work.”

The importance of employment in general was a key feature of the institute. Sessions focused on how to prepare for work, how to get it, and how to keep it. Others shared information about finding paid internships, developing microbusinesses and entrepreneurships, joining career clubs, and more.

The benefits of including students with disabilities in the general education classroom “was another theme that permeated the entire institute,” says Sawyer. In addition, themes of neurodiversity as a strength, the importance of family and community engagement, and asset development as central to success in adult life were highlights of the event.

Youth Empowerment

Sawyer seems to be most proud, however, of the participation of youth and young adults with disabilities in Bridge to the Future. These individuals led their own sessions, introduced speakers, served as keynote speakers themselves, and counseled each other for success.

Supporting youth to find their own voice and to work from their strengths have been themes in previous institutes. Sawyer believes that the traction CA TA has gained and the success that young adults have realized in this area is a result of the alliance’s unique approach.

“We engage the youth in training other youth,” she says. Once they have developed their own skills, “We tell them, ‘You’re an expert now in self-advocacy and self-determination and empowerment. Now you pass that baton to other people.’” Classrooms throughout the state participated in the institute’s Youth Strand, thanks to the virtual platform. In these sessions, students and former students shared their stories, struggles, and strategies for employment, self-determination, and maximum independence in adult life.

The Youth Mentoring model is a focus that CA TA has been developing for years, a focus that has led to the alliance’s working relationship with the National Disability Mentoring Coalition. With Derek Shields, co-chair of the coalition’s advisory board, CA TA has created invaluable tools for young adults with disabilities to develop self-advocacy and employment skills. In keeping with the theme of “passing the baton on to others,” many of these resources were developed by young adults with disabilities for young adults with disabilities.

Along with forward-thinking ideas, the institute featured creative and effective practices—for using Toastmasters to improve communication skills for individuals with Autism, incorporating trauma-informed practices into the IEP, writing an effective IEP, managing benefits, and more. The list is long. The institute offered a total of 84 sessions with 130 speakers, and it hosted more than 2,000 attendees. Even after the fact, that last number is growing.

The complete roster of conference events was recorded and will remain available online until March 2023. Anyone interested can still register and gain access to the presentations along with the dozens of featured resources that will be available for new and previous attendees. To register, go to http://www.catransitionalliance.org/catransitionalliance.aspx

Additional Resources

College to Career Programs by College

photo of Sue Sawyer

Sue Sawyer: A Tribute

Sue Sawyer did not want this story written. But because she probably will never retire, her countless friends insisted that a tribute was due.

For the unfortunate few who don’t know who she is, Sue Sawyer is an educator, long-time human rights advocate, president of the California Transition Alliance, and general force of nature in the landscape of public education in California.

Sue’s colleague, Vicki Shadd (who proposed the idea for this tribute), warned that any effort to interview Sue would be met with pushback. Rather than learning personal details about Sue’s life, said Shadd, a questioner would end up with Sue’s eighty reasons why transition services should be improved for students with disabilities, ninety strategies for how to improve those services, and dozens of stories about amazing students and their successes.

When talking with Sue, however, a few personal facts do emerge. The first is that, for Sue, it’s all personal.

Her passion as an educator came from her family life. “I was raised,” she said in an interview, “with the expectation that you do the best you can. And if you have information to share, then you share it.” She credits a grandmother and both of her parents with instilling in her a commitment to service that she applies to every part of her life. “Then when I was in the first grade, the teacher taught me how to read. I thought that was the best gift you could ever give a person, and I decided then that I wanted to grow up and teach others to read, too.”

And that is what she did. After high school she earned a teaching credential along with a reading specialist certification. In the 1970s after she got married, she moved to Georgia and went to work in “an impoverished, rural school district,” she recalled. “There I taught a classroom of 30 seventh graders. None of them knew how to read. None of them even knew all the letters of the alphabet. They had bits and pieces of the process, but for them it was like trying to put a jigsaw puzzle together without all the parts.” Sue went to work to provide those missing parts.

There was no reading curriculum at the school, she said, “and we weren’t using textbooks.” She did have a cooperative public library, though, which she visited monthly to check out dozens of high-interest books. And she provided “lots of instruction. The kids got really interested, and by the end of that year, they were all reading at a fourth-grade level or above.”

A key moment for her, she says, was “sharing the test results with the superintendent. And he said, ‘I didn’t know these students could learn.’”

Sue did. And proved it.

A second defining experience for Sue was when she moved to Redding and gave birth to her first child. “There was a traumatic incident at his birth,” she said, “and the doctor came in and told me I should not try to bond with my baby. I should institutionalize him. The doctor just assumed the baby would have a disability.

“That was a life-changing moment. My son was fine. He was walking at 7 months. He met all the childhood milestones. I think he was talking from birth.”

That child is now a successful building contractor and wood worker. “But if I had listened to that doctor, think of how tragic it could have been. And parents go through that.”

A third seminal experience for Sue also occurred in Redding when she was hired to be the vocational coordinator for students with disabilities. In conducting assessments, she says, “I discovered that the students had strengths, they had interests, they had all of these skills—even if they weren’t academically oriented.”

With a growing skepticism of conventional expectations for students with disabilities, Sue started to devote her energies to helping these students develop their strengths and realize their potential. In the 1990s, she says, “I was doing transition planning before it was mandated, focusing on students’ strengths and their attributes. I even required that the student attend their IEP [Individualized Education Program] transition meetings.”

These three events secured the trajectory of the rest of Sue’s career.

The Rest Is History

“We had some pretty creative programs up here,” she said, referring to Redding’s Northern California location. “And I was an avid grant writer. When I saw a need, I found and wrote a grant.” As a result, “we were able to have WorkAbility and the Transition Partnership Program. We had programs through the Department of Labor and the one-stop system. We found ways to meet the needs of the students.”

Sue has always worked far beyond any grant contract’s “deliverables.” For example, with WorkAbility, “We were actively involved in the Chamber of Commerce and in the community. We had more business people on the WorkAbility advisory board than any other group. We learned from them what kinds of skills they were looking for. And we negotiated with them for opportunities for our students to explore careers, get work experience, and have a full array of career development opportunities.”

Her commitment to the value of WorkAbility led to the creation of the California Transition Alliance. When WorkAbility was faced with funding challenges in the early 2000s, she said, “the Alliance was formed to be that group of people who sat down and explained to state legislators what WorkAbility was. We weren’t a lobbying arm. The Alliance was a means of giving legislators the information they needed to make informed decisions.” From there, Sue’s commitment to effective transition services only grew.

Funding for WorkAbility aside, she saw a disconnect. “Teachers are not taught how to do transition,” she said. “They’re given a document and are expected to fill it out. Special educators could go five years before they have the training to know what the Individualized Transition Plan in the IEP is and even what it means.”

Sue responded as a true teacher. “We wanted to make sure that people understood why it was so important to provide transition services and to keep the focus on the student.” She had seen the impact that a successful transition could have on not just finishing high school but thriving for the rest of a student’s life. “We decided as a group that one of our primary focuses should be to provide that training.” The now-classic text, Transition Planning: The Basics, is one of the products of this effort, along with countless ongoing trainings, resources, and workshops.

In 2010, the California Department of Education (CDE), recognizing this same need for educator training and support, wanted to develop a community of practice (COP) for transition. “In swooped Sue Sawyer and the Transition Alliance,” writes Jill Larson, CDE consultant at the time. “By 2012 we had a strong statewide COP, thanks to the leadership provided by Sue. California’s Community of Practice for Transition has been recognized nationally as a model of excellence, thanks to Sue. The next step was creating a statewide conference . . . Thus, the beginning of the Bridge to the Future institutes.”

Also, thanks to Sue, these institutes have become places where lives are changed.

“I got lucky,” says Ellen Coulston when she talks about first meeting Sue. Coulston and her son Chris, who has a disability, were at a national transition conference in 2013. Sue and her colleague Liz Zastrow heard Chris talk about his experience at his IEP meetings, says Coulston. “And then suddenly Sue is saying, ‘We just had this institute, and we’d like Chris to keynote for the next one.’ And I’m thinking, ‘What are you? Crazy? This kid is in high school.’ But they invited us. Chris was 17 at the time, and he keynoted at their conference.

“She believes in people,” Coulston says of Sue. “She had this expectation for Chris. And he rose to the occasion. It was such a shift for me to go from just coping and hearing about all these bumper lanes of ‘he can’t do this, and he can’t do that’ to Sue having this confidence in what Chris could do.”

Because of Sue’s belief, says Coulston, “Chris is not weighed down anymore by his disability. He’s not shackled by what he cannot do. It’s all about what he can do. I think he’s free.”

According to Derek Shields, Sue is always scanning the horizon for new opportunities to free students from the limitations that outdated models place on them. Shields works with the National Disability Mentoring Coalition and met Sue through her interest in “how media opportunities and gig employment could intersect with secondary transition,” said Shields. “Sue wanted to get the system to understand that gig work and self-employment could be an important option for young people. And if these new employment opportunities are not available, what do we need to do in the system to change things?

“Sue was also becoming more aware of the importance of mentoring,” says Shields, whose own work involves getting “more peer mentors to be part of the solution. Most of the time we see young people [with disabilities] growing up without role models. They see no one succeed who looks or sounds like themselves. As Sue got to know this, we started chatting. That’s what led us to work more closely. And that’s what formed Let’s Work, California.”

As this tribute was being written, stories flooded in about Sue’s influence, her creative thinking, her brave advocacy efforts, her Hollywood connections, her decades-long determination to make a high school diploma and college an option for every student, and on and on.

“She’s a mastermind,” says Coulston. “She brings the research to life. There is no one like her.”

Liz Zastrow is a longtime friend of Sue, as well as a colleague. Zastrow writes, “Sue has literally changed the landscape of transition in California.” Zastrow goes on to catalogue at length instances of Sue’s generosity, commitment, and indefatigable energy for supporting teachers, parents, students, and her friends. “Students and young adults are always at the center of everything she does.” Sue’s colleague Richard Rosenberg agrees, writing that Sue is “the truly sensitive, caring person who will always advocate for all students.”

“The characteristic that I most appreciate about Sue,” adds Shields, “is that, while she understands the complicated bureaucracy behind the systems, she’s also willing to talk with you at your level.” Shields describes how Sue will sit with people for as long as they’d like to talk and explain whatever it is that needs explaining.

“Sue has mentored me on systems change,” he says, “and on connecting the educational system to the employment realities. I’ve been doing this work for 26 years, and she is the first one who took the time to explain this to me.”

Sue is the first one to do a great many things. And California is grateful.

“Upon meeting Sue, the first thing that struck me about her was how unassuming and normal she seemed. I had heard so much about this veritable giant in the field of secondary transition that when I met her, I did not recognize her. Sue is modest yet radiates confidence and strength. She speaks from a place of experience, practice, and heart, and appears to have an inexhaustible supply of time, energy, passion, and knowledge of special education and secondary transition. Every phone call with Sue is a history lesson—Sue is an educator, and you are going to learn something beneficial about special education and secondary transition when you talk with her.

Sue, you are a true champion for good and make this world a better place. Thank you for your continued and tireless work in improving the lives of students with disabilities.”

—Nick Wavrin, Consultant, California Department of Education