Facebook
Twitter

Table of Contents

Letter from the State Director

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

Education can be as much an art as it is a skill and topic of study. This issue of The Special EDge newsletter shows how. The stories in these pages highlight creative—even artistic—efforts in California to overcome often seemingly intractable challenges and barriers to successful school outcomes for students with disabilities. The examples are many.

The Governor’s budget—along with advocacy from the families of children with disabilities and their educational allies—has made possible a recent expansion of Family Empowerment Centers in the state. These centers, both new and established, are developing ingenious approaches to ensuring that their families receive important services and support before, during, and after their child’s school years. (Click here to read this article.)

In order to learn, students need teachers. And students often learn best when those teachers share the same gender, race, or ethnicity. To address the persistent teacher shortage in its every facet, the state is exploring and implementing creative approaches to attracting and retaining sufficient instructional staff to best serve the students in their classrooms. (Click here to read this article.)

Families often experience disruptions as they transition from the family-centered Part C services of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) to the school-centered services of IDEA’s Part B. Creative, working partnerships are the key to ensuring minimal disruptions and improved outcomes for children and families alike. The California Early Childhood Special Education (CalECSE) Network provides information, training, and technical assistance to ensure that all organizations and individuals what are part of this transition have the information, skills, and support they need to develop those partnerships and thus best support children and their families. (Click here to read this article.)

The ability of educators to make joy out of necessity is clearly evident in the Long Beach Unified School District, where students and adults are altering toys so that children with certain physical or neurological disabilities can, in their turn, find joy. (Click here to read this article.)

And then there is the integrity and humility of those teachers—such as Katie Novak—who look to Universal Design for Learning as their guiding principle, but who look mostly to their students for inspiration on what shape that principle takes in a classroom every day and for each student. (Click here to read this article.)

Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) in special education has been used for decades to settle disagreements. Jason Harper writes about why and how ADR can serve as a creative and invaluable tool for ensuring the most favorable outcomes for a student when disputes emerge during the Individualized Education Program (IEP) process. (Click here to read this article.)

Community Schools hold great promise for improving education in California, especially for students who attend school in less-advantaged communities. Two school districts in the state—one in Anaheim and the other in Eureka—are on their way to realizing that promise by nimbly and creatively responding to the needs of their students, collectively and individually, whatever those needs are and whoever the student is. (Click here to read this article.)

California’s children and youth are experiencing a mental health crisis of alarming proportions. In response, a number of the state’s schools are enhancing their social-emotional and mental health services with the help of the Scale-up MTSS (Multi-tiered System of Support) Statewide (SUMS) initiative. The vision of this tremendous effort is to seamlessly incorporate social and emotional learning and mental health supports in every classroom in every school in the state. (Click here to read this article.)

The California Advisory Commission on Special Education
The California Advisory Commission on Special Education advises the California Department of Education, the California State Legislature, and the Governor on policies that influence and guide the education of children and youth with disabilities. Any member of the public is invited to attend ACSE meetings in person or virtually. To learn more about the meetings, the work of the commission, and its GOAL Award—Grazer Outstanding Achievement in Learning—go to: https://www.cde.ca.gov/sp/se/as/acse.asp

The Peer-to-Peer Support movement in California’s schools represents another approach the state is taking to creatively address mental health issues. Sheila Balk’s program at Pomona High School represents a committed and effective forerunner of an expanding effort that has gained significant traction from students themselves. In these pages, Sriya Chill and Nghia Do write about their personal involvement in this movement. (Click here to read these articles.)

Finally, the Redwood SEED (Supported Education to Elevate Diversity) Scholars Program at UC Davis is the dream child of Beth Foraker, who has worked tirelessly for years to promote the idea of “Continuums of Inclusion”: communities where all schooling—preschool through college—invites everyone to full participation, and all schools share the common goal of independent living and inclusive employment in adulthood for all. This program offers a world where no one is left outside, and everyone belongs. Redwood SEED Scholars and Mentors both tell their stories of how this program is shaping and changing their lives. (Click here to read these articles.)

The task of ensuring a bright future for every one of California’s students is beyond the reach of any single initiative. California’s educators, service providers, and policymakers, however, are showing an unflagging commitment to the many efforts described in the pages. In the process, these professionals are improving outcomes for countless students.

— Heather

Note to readers: Since this issue of The Special EDge was submitted for publication, State Director Heather Calomese left the Special Education Division to pursue policy work. Newsletter staff appreciated the thoughtful guidance she provided throughout her tenure and wish her the very best in her future efforts.—Ed.

Photo of Heather Calomese

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

Katie Maloney-Krips: CDE Education Programs Consultant

John Burch: CDE Administrator

Kristin Brooks: SIP Executive Director

Kevin Schaefer: SIP Director of Equity and Inclusive Practices

Mary Cichy Grady: Editor

Kris Murphey: Associate Editor

Geri West: Content Consultant

Janet Mandelstam: Staff Writer and Copy Editor

Katie Novak: Contributing Writer

Jason Harper: Contributing Writer

Sriya Chilla: Contributing Writer

Nghia Do: Contributing Writer

Karis Jewel Chun: Contributing Writer

Sophia Haque: Contributing Writer

Alyssa Bacon: Contributing Writer

Esmeralda Gonzalez: Contributing Writer

The Special EDge is published by the Supporting Inclusive Practices (SIP) Project.

Funding is provided by the California Department of Education (CDE), Special Education Division, through contract number CN077046.

Contents of this document do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the SIP Project or the CDE, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement.

The information in this issue is in the public domain unless otherwise indicated.

Readers are encouraged to copy and share but to credit the SIP Project and the CDE.

To request an e-subscription, please email: join-edge-newsletter@mlist.cde.ca.gov

To unsubscribe, please email: unsubscribe-edge-newsletter@mlist.cde.ca.gov

Please direct questions to:
EdgeNewsletter@cde.ca.gov

CDE logo

Family Empowerment Centers

No one questions the vital role parents and families play in the education of students with disabilities. Indeed, the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) mandates that schools provide the opportunity for parents to actively participate in decisions about the education of their children. But for many parents, interacting with the school system can be a daunting proposition.

The tasks they must master are formidable: Understanding their child’s disability and the laws governing special education, preparing for Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings, learning how to advocate for their child, discovering what resources exist, knowing how to qualify for and access services—and so much more.

To support parents and families and to help prepare them for that role of active participant, California has established a network of Family Empowerment Centers (FECs) throughout the state.

“We look at our job as bridge builders between the families and the schools,” says Bob Battistoni, program services manager at Plumas Rural Services, an FEC serving Lassen, Modoc, Plumas, and Sierra Counties.

No two FECs are alike. Services vary based on the needs of the community. But all provide training and information to the families of children with disabilities ages 3 to 22 [services for children with disabilities from birth to age three are coordinated by California’s Department of Developmental Services through a program called Early Start]. The centers are safe places where families can find support and help, both practical and emotional, as they navigate the world of special education. Staff will prepare them for important school meetings; review IEPs, assessments, and evaluations; and connect them with community service providers. Most FECs are staffed by parents or family members of children with disabilities. As a result, empathy flows naturally. And most centers go well beyond the basics in serving their constituents.

History

Family Empowerment Centers were first established in 2001 through Senate Bill 511. The California Department of Education (CDE) then awarded grants to 12 centers serving 24 counties. Two additional centers were added in 2006, bringing the total to 14 centers serving 27 counties. Then the growth stopped and funding remained flat until 2021 when the state legislature approved an expansion. Eight new centers were created then, bringing the total to 22 centers serving 40 counties. California’s 2022–23 State Budget Act made funds available to CDE to continue adding FECs. Seven centers were established in 2022 and two more in 2023. Some existing centers also expanded their service areas to include additional counties.

There currently are 31 FECs serving 57 of the state’s 58 counties. (Only Lake County lacks a center.)

Beyond the Basics

What most FECs provide goes far beyond preparing families for IEP meetings as they respond to the needs of families.

Sometimes the FEC will be an active participant in solving issues at school, as in this example from Battistoni: A student with behavior issues was regularly suspended or sent home. “The question was how to get the student back in school,” he recalls. The parents, the FEC, and school staff began “brainstorming solutions, determining why the student’s behavior was changing. There was a behavior intervention plan in place. We reexamined it, made changes to the plan,” and the student was back in school.

Or they find ways to provide help that the family didn’t know how to request, as in this example from Linda Thrift, executive director at WarmLine, one of the new FECs based in Sacramento: The call came in on the Spanish line. A single mother was seeking help to apply for SSI (Supplemental Security Income). “She had a daughter in high school and a five-year-old son with autism,” Thrift recalls. The family did not have easy internet access, “so we printed out the application and helped fill it out.” But Thrift didn’t stop there. The woman, she said, “was hungry for information. I was able to tell her what her rights were, help her communicate her son’s needs at school, and enroll him in ‘Mind the Gap’ (a program to engage low-resource families in autism intervention) at the MIND Institute at UC Davis.” The woman, Thrift said, “felt so empowered.” She had reached out to the FEC with one specific request, “but we ended up helping the whole family.”

Then there are needs that are even more removed from, say, an IEP meeting, but are no less critical. In recent years the state has been ravaged by fires and floods, causing disruption in the lives of the families served by FECs. At Special Kids Connect in Monterey County, “families were displaced by floods,” says Executive Director Lori Luzader. “Fields were destroyed, leading to loss of work and income. We work with families on emergency readiness and how to ensure that the children are cared for” in times of disaster.

Sometimes, all a family member needs is emotional support. A Family Empowerment Center should be “a place of understanding and empathy,” says Luzader. “Sometimes they just need someone to listen,” says Elena Sanchez, executive director of Parents’ Place, an FEC serving families in the San Gabriel Valley of Los Angeles County. Battistoni agrees. “We need listening skills,” he says. “We need to try to understand what the family is going through.”

And then there was the pandemic. “The centers were open so families could call, and they increased their offerings online,” says Robin Ryan, coordinator of Seeds of Partnership, a project that provides technical assistance to FECs. Most trainings and support groups gravitated to Zoom. “Parent participation did increase,” says Ryan. “Families that hadn’t participated before were able to participate now because their children were coming home from school with computers.” Parents’ Place “never closed,” says Sanchez. “We met families outside. We loaned I-pads to families and conducted trainings outside.” Offices are open again, but many of FECs have kept some of their programs online and offer a hybrid array of services.

New FECS

Not all of the new FECs are actually new organizations. “Some have been around for decades and have been providing services to this population,” says Ryan. Some of the new FECs have been supporting Early Start. “What’s new is receiving FEC funding, which allows them to increase staff and expand offerings.” Still, she says, “there is a learning curve.”

While supporting families in Early Start familiarizes FECs with local education agencies (LEAs) as the children transition from Part C to Part B services,[1] the work of FECs with the school districts has been limited to prekindergarten programs. New FECs “will have to build relationships with LEAs,” says Noelia Hernandez, education administrator in the Special Education Division of CDE. “If you haven’t been providing services to elementary, middle, and high schools, you need to know what LEAs have in place for families and how you can support and supplement that.”

That’s just what is happening at WarmLine, which became an FEC in late summer 2022. Thrift agrees that “it all starts with relationships. We’ve connected with the Sacramento Unified School District and with the SELPA in Sacramento County. We’ve been ramping up, building the program. It’s always been our goal to be a Family Empowerment Center.” The FEC funding is allowing WarmLine to hire a bilingual Hmong family resource specialist “to be able to break into that underserved community,” says Thrift.

At Special Kids Connect, the extra funding allowed the center to hire Jennifer Netniss as education director. A Salinas native with a background in special education, Netniss conducts at least four workshops a month. Families, she says, often “don’t know what they don’t know.” The center helps them to understand the IEP and other special education processes and “organize their thoughts so they go into school meetings knowing what they want to say.”

Building Relationships

It’s not just relationships with LEAs that are important for the centers. Connecting with the families they serve is paramount. “We want families to feel that we’re not a stranger,” says Battistoni. “We’ve got to meet them where they’re coming from, break down barriers, make them feel comfortable.”

For Luzader, one of the “biggest challenges is getting parents to connect with us when it isn’t crisis mode. So, we focus on outreach in the community.”

For many FECs serving rural counties, the challenge is reaching the families that need help. WarmLine is based in Sacramento but serves six counties. “We have to work hard to establish relationships in the rural parts of our area,” says Thrift. “It could take two hours to reach families looking for resources.” Like many FECs, WarmLine offers virtual office hours.

FECS are using social media to expand their reach. Parents Helping Parents, a center serving Santa Clara County, posts photos and program announcements on Instagram. Others have Facebook pages.

The relationship challenge for FECs often means communicating with families in their native language. Most centers have Spanish-speaking staff on board. At Parents’ Place, the website also offers information in Mandarin/Cantonese and Vietnamese., and “when parents come to the center, we provide interpretation,” says Sanchez. In addition to seeking a Hmong specialist, WarmLine offers printed material in Russian.

Family centers help parents understand the IEP and organize their thoughts so they can go into meetings knowing what they want to say.

Then there are the relationships among the parents themselves. Knowing that families benefit from learning about the experiences of other families, FECs encourage participation in parent-to-parent support groups and offer other, more informal, ways for parents to connect. Special Kids Connect recently held a “Mom’s Night Out,” an evening of networking and casual dining for mothers, grandmothers, and all women involved in the lives of children with disabilities. Parents’ Place holds an annual Fair & Festival bringing together the 100-plus community agencies that partner with the center and some 3,000 families that it serves. “The whole family comes,” says Sanchez. “They see that there are so many other families like them.”

Finally, there are the relationships among the FECs themselves. They share resources—Parents’ Place uses Parents Helping Parents’ videos on special education. Three centers co-present a Zoom guide to the IEP process. Established directors mentor new directors, and the directors meet regularly with CDE.

The Future

While the newly minted FECs are actively scaling up resources and supports, established centers are looking to the future. And some have ambitious plans.

Parents Helping Parents, for example, adopted a three-year set of strategic goals in 2021. By June 2024, its website proclaims, “PHP will increase its local services to those most underserved in our region, build a disability advocacy network capable of reaching 100,000 families in order to improve the lives of those with disabilities, and will have expanded to establish itself as a hub for information for parents of transition-age youth and adults with disabilities in California and throughout the United States.”

The state is watching. The California’s legislature recently appropriated one-time funding to implement a new data system that will be monitored, Hernandez says, “to show that Family Empowerment Centers are making a difference” in the lives of families.

References

[1] Part C of IDEA defines serves for families of infants and toddlers with disabilities or developmental delays, from birth to age 3. Part B of IDEA defines school-based services for children with disabilities from age 3 through age 22—or when a student graduates from high school.

Resource

A complete list of FECs and the counties they serve, is available at https://www.seedsofpartnership.org/FEC_contacts.html

Partnerships in Early Childhood Transitions

If you are a parent of a two-year-old with a disability or developmental delay, you may be anticipating what is called the “Part C to Part B” transition—a process that is often the most bewildering and important that you will experience as the parent of a young child. During this transition, the services you and your family have been receiving to support your child’s development are changing both in how they’re delivered and who’s delivering them.
The elements of this transition and the disrupting changes that it involves emerged in part from how federal law evolved.

Part B and Part C

The Education for All Handicapped Children Act (Public Law 94-142) was signed in 1975 by President Gerald Ford to ensure that students with disabilities had a legal right to a public education. The law included a “Part B,” which mandates that all individuals who have disabilities and who are 3 years of age or older (until they graduate from high school or turn 22) have a right to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) that is provided in the least restrictive environment (LRE) that is best suited to the individual child.

The law was amended in 1986 (PL 99-457) to require states to provide programs and services to infants and toddlers—children with disabilities from birth to age 3—and their families. This mandate was itself amended in 1997 (by which time the name of the law had been changed to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA) as “Part C,” which established regulations and guidelines for providing services to address a diagnosed or possible disability or developmental delay. These services include an evaluation for the presence of a disability along with support for the child and the child’s family through a variety of early intervention services. (In California, Part C is called “Early Start.”)

The California Department of Developmental Services (DDS), either directly with Regional Centers or through DDS’s early intervention service providers, is responsible for Part C services. The Special Education Division of the California Department of Education (CDE) is responsible for Part B services. (Note: In California, children with low incidence disabilities—orthopedic, vision, or hearing impairments—only receive their IDEA services from school districts, regardless of their age.)

The Differences
  IDEA Part C IDEA Part B
Focus On supporting the family to meet the developmental needs of the child with a delay/disability. On the child and the child’s educational needs.
Plan Individual Family Service Plan (IFSP) Individualized Education Program (IEP)
Kinds of Services Designed to meet the developmental needs of each child and the family’s needs related to supporting their child’s development. Designed to support the child’s education and instruction; to include those services required for the child with a disability to benefit from his/her/their education.
For a chart showing the complete range of differences between Part C and Part B of IDEA, go to https://www.infanthearing.org/earlyintervention/docs/aspect-idea-part-c-and-idea-part-b.pdf

While all IDEA services mandated in both Parts C and B are individualized and follow plans that are developed with the participation of the family, each part has a distinctly different focus: Part C provides early intervention services that are developmental, family centered, environments” (e.g., the home or day care settings); Part B focuses on the child’s education and provides services that are student centered and delivered in school settings.

Adding to the complexity of this transition is the fact that the eligibility criteria for determining if a child has a qualifying disability can be different from Part C to Part B, depending upon the nature of the disability and assessment results. Terminology and definitions change from one part to the other as well, as do data requirements and collection criteria. See the chart below for some of the basic differences.

And there are more compounding issues. California over the years has evolved a mixed-delivery system among Part C providers. Before IDEA was amended in 1986, some local educational agencies (LEAs)—those responsible for Part B services—had developed their own programs to provide the equivalent of Part C/Early Start services to infants and toddlers and their families. Many of these County Offices of Education or school districts maintained the same infant and toddler programs after Part C became law, working with their Regional Centers or private entities to provide the required early intervention services. For the families in these “legacy” programs, the Part C to Part B transition does not always involve changes—and it tends to be fairly smooth.

For all agencies involved, IDEA provides a set of guidelines [(20 U.S.C. §1412(a)(9)] for what is required to “ensure a seamless transition.” These guidelines state that “both IDEA Part C and Part B agencies must work closely together at the State and local level. At the State level, this coordination must include an interagency/intra-agency agreement between the State lead agency [in California, this is the DDS] and the SEA,” or state educational agency, which is the CDE. These two agencies are required to have “a transition agreement and policies and procedures to ensure effective coordination and communication at the State and local levels.” The goal is for the transition to go smoothly and children to continue receiving the services they require. As with anything this important and this complicated, some transition processes work better than others. San Diego’s East County Special Education Local Plan Area (SELPA) has created one of the better ones.

 
The key components to success are relationships and partnerships.
 

Relationships and Partnerships

“I was fortunate when I started in this work 11 years ago,” says Heather DiFede, executive director of East County SELPA. Back then, she says, “there was an existing structure in San Diego where our LEAs serve infants” in one of the legacy programs that predate IDEA Part C. “We have four LEA infant providers,” she says, that work closely with the local Regional Center and Family Empowerment Center, both of which take care of the area’s referrals for Early Start services.

Over the decades, these organizations have developed and refined their processes for serving children and their families as they move from Early Start into the schools. “It’s not Utopia,” says DiFede. “But we have structures for working on problems when they arise.”

For years, policymakers have been noting the effectiveness of these structures, and in 2022, following a competitive application process, East County SELPA and the area’s Regional Center were selected as “the Interagency Leads for the CalECSE Network grant,” says DiFede.

CalECSE stands for “California Early Childhood Special Education.” The CalECSE Network is a new technical assistance project funded by CDE and created to support any agency that is involved in IDEA Part C to Part B transitions: LEAs, SELPAs, County Offices of Special Education (COEs), and other agency partners. The Network is funding East County SELPA and the San Diego Regional Center to create resources and training for these partners in support of interagency collaboration Part C to Part B transition processes.

CalECSE also works to strengthen preschool assessment practices and preschool Child Find by providing technical assistance and professional learning opportunities and by demonstrating tangible practices that have been proven successful.

It’s no surprise that East County SELPA was selected to participate in the CalECSE Network, and it’s no surprise that the county’s practices for transition—especially its strategies for creating interagency agreements—are being disseminated through this grant.

When asked what the key components are to the success in her county’s efforts specifically and to any transition in general, DiFede does not hesitate: “Relationships and partnerships,” she says.

DiFede gives a great deal of credit to the leadership at her local Family Empowerment Center (FEC), Exceptional Families Resource Center, for this answer. She says that a former director of the center “was very big on relationships—person to person, provider to provider.” With that commitment to building and maintaining relationships, “we would conduct joint trainings on our interagency agreements, with Regional Center and FEC staff co-presenting. And then we had our staff come together” to answer questions and ensure common understanding and agreement.

With that kind of collaboration happening across each of the infant programs, says DiFede, all of the parties involved in the transition eventually were able to be “on the same page.”

DiFede knows that the success her area has seen was made possible in part because of those legacy LEAs, which “serve a good chunk of our infants. Across the state [other LEAs] maybe have one or two infants they transition. We have over 220 infants each year, so we’re doing that a little bit more frequently,” she says in understatement. And that frequency gave East County SELPA, its Regional Center, and the Exceptional Families Resource Center regular and frequent opportunities to discover, practice, and refine the best ways to smooth out the Part C to Part B transition.

 
The Network

The CalECSE Network is supporting local educational agencies (LEAs), Special Education Local Plan Areas (SELPAs), special education divisions within County Offices of Education, and other agency partners in Part C to Part B transitions under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA; see main article). In addition to this focus, the Network is funding Exemplar Leads in the areas of Assessment Practices, Assessment Team Leadership, Preschool Child Find, Parent Outreach and Support, Data Governance, and Innovative and Inclusive Preschool Practices and developing resources and trainings that can be accessed at CalECSE.org by educators and agencies throughout the state.

The CalECSE Network is an interagency approach to technical assistance. Agencies selected in the competitive process include LEAs, COEs, SELPAs, Family Resource and Empowerment Centers, Regional Centers, First 5 California, and others.

The CalECSE Network is co-directed by Dr. Scott Turner, executive director of the East San Gabriel Valley SELPA, and Melanie Hertig, executive director of the Irvine Unified School District/SELPA. Under their leadership, the network is leveraging collaboration among agencies, disseminating resources, highlighting existing exemplar practices, and providing direct technical assistance to improve the capacity, knowledge, collaboration, and implementation of evidence-based practices across agencies throughout California.

The CalECSE Network is committed to improving outcomes for children and their families by addressing and eliminating barriers to successful transition for California’s youngest children with disabilities.

 

Now the CalECSE Network is making these discoveries known and disseminating them across the state—discoveries about the importance of understanding the people and organizations involved and their particular challenges and goals, and then the importance of facilitated conversations to create that understanding in support of the work, especially given the intricacies of the process.

Lucia Garay has been hired to develop the trainings and resources for parents and LEA staff on this work. Garay brings an entire career of experience and a lifetime of commitment to the process. She served as an early childhood educator and leader for many years before working as director of early education programs for the San Diego County Office of Education.

Garay is recently retired from the county office and devoting her full energies to the network. Before that retirement, however, she was a member of in the Part C to B Workgroup. Created by California Assembly Bill 75, this workgroup helped to formalized what Garay sees as a decades-long state-level commitment to finding ways to ensure a smooth Part C to Part B transition. The workgroup, she says, also embodied a commitment to collaboration among “all of those different voices: the FEC, Regional Centers, school districts, county offices of education. The level of expertise that is relevant to those Part C to B transitions is incredibly important because there are so many factors within that transition that are important to the different players.”

With these differences in mind, Garay argues for the need “to facilitate deep conversations to understand each other, understand why a representative of one entity might get more stressed during one part of the transition than another, and why that stress causes dysfunction for the families.”

 
“We need to listen to each other and have the parent voice at the table so that the focus is on the family.”
 

Garay provides an example. The Regional Centers are required to provide specific kinds of data to DDS about the Individual Family Service Plan (IFSP) that children received and whether they continue to qualify for IDEA services once they turn 3. But every Regional Center can select its own system for creating IFSPs. Both Regional Centers and CDE have to collect and report data. “But for CDE,” says Garay, “it is a much more complex data set.” When you’re looking at forms and paperwork, she says, both sides need to be able to understand the pressures and challenges that the other is experiencing. “You have to be able to have conversations about what needs to be on a form so that both agencies can be at peace and relax about their ability to report and be accountable to their systems.”

For these conversations to happen, she says, there must be “leadership at the local level.” This leadership is particularly important because of the varying protocols for providing services. Without a coherent view uniting those protocols, confusion easily sets in. “You have LEAs providing some Part C services only for low incidence disabilities [those disabilities are those that occur infrequently in the general population],” she says. Then you have some that “provide a little bit of everything. Then you have some regions where the Regional Center, instead of contracting with educational vendors and private entities in the community, contracts with a county office of education or school district to provide the educational services, and they pay the LEA as the vendor.

“It is so confusing,” says Garay, “that there is no way to do this except to facilitate those conversations—that is what we are hoping to be able to do through our work with CalECSE.” Those facilitated conversations, Garay says, are the vehicle for creating “the understanding that we need to listen to each other and have the parent voice at the table so that the focus is on the family.”

Both Garay and DiFede see successful school outcomes for children as the goal that every individual involved in the transition must keep uppermost in mind. “It is the responsibility of all of us who are practitioners,” says Garay, “to reflect on whether the practices we have in place are focused on families and the children, versus doing what works for the professionals. We also have a history of data being used as a punishment or as a force on programs, versus the data being used as a tool to provide technical assistance and improvement. That’s where I feel a shift with the creation of CalECSE and the way it is being led right now.” (Note: CDE is focusing on using data as a tool to provide technical support and positive, proactive program improvement. The consistent and comprehensive use of data in this manner is a current goal of the CDE.)

What Garay sees as groundbreaking about the network is its technical assistance to leadership, which she is helping to design. “In the past there have been great efforts to assist with Part C services by elevating the expertise of practitioners.” She mentions such efforts as the SEEDs Project (which oversaw a supportive initiative for practitioners that ended in 2012 but which still makes important resources available).

“CalECSE,” she says, “is unique in the variety of expert leaders that have gathered together.” And these leaders are the ones who can initiate and create the organizational partnerships, secure the agreements, and oversee the processes that are key to successful transitions.

Vision and Advice

When asked what her vision was when she first applied for her role in the CalECSE Network, DiFede says she wanted “to provide a roadmap that will increase collaboration between Regional Centers and LEAs, promote a smooth transition from Part C to Part B,” and show that building these kinds of working partnerships is achievable.

Taking the time to create understanding and partnerships “helps us problem solve bigger issues—issues we’ll be spending more of our time on if we don’t address them proactively.”

DiFede and Garay know all about the competing mandates, regulations, data requirements, and cultures of the many and various organizations involved in Part C to Part B transitions. Their advice for working through the many differences is simple “Understand that all parties are coming at it with the best of intentions,” says DiFede, “and assume the best.”

The stakes are high. “There is such a shift in perspective,” says DiFede, when families move from Part C to Part B services. “It’s a very delicate time because things are changing for families in so many ways. We have to be there to support them” because what happens in this transition “lays the foundation not only for the child’s educational career but for how the family views the entire school system. It will shape their interactions for years to come.”

Additional Resources

Preparing for Transition from Early Intervention to an Individualized Education. (2012). The PACER Center. https://www.pacer.org/ec/early-intervention/transition-early-intervention-toiep.asp

Using Compassion to Meet Compliance

Long Beach Unified School District (LBUSD) honors to the letter the legal requirements for ensuring educational accessibility for students with disabilities. But with a 3D printer and a collaborative student-centered culture, the district also is responding to the spirit of the law in imaginative and inspiring ways, as high school students gather with staff, families, and community members at the annual “Hackathon,” where they modify battery-operated toys. They install buttons and switches and add other alterations that make the toys accessible for students who have motor, speech/language, and cognitive challenges.

The Hackathon began in 2018 as a glimmer in the eye of Lauren Bouwman, who was a speech therapist at an elementary school in the district. After a brainstorming session on how to incorporate speech therapy into the specialized healthcare setting, Bouwman approached Lucy Salazar—then principal of the school—with the idea of involving high school students in making toys more accessible to students with certain physical disabilities by adding longer cords and bigger buttons.

Salazar, who is now Director of Equity, Engagement, and Partnerships for the district, responded immediately with “Yes, yes, what do you need?” Bouwman and her colleagues reached out to the school sites, and the Hackathon was born.

The first year of the Hackathon, Bouwman secured funding from a group of lawyers and the event took place at two school sites. The next year, those involved wanted to double the number of toys, and Bouwman’s sister put a message on social media looking for individual donations. Staff from the social media company saw the post, and that company has been supporting the Hackathon ever since.

The event takes place just before winter break. Messages go out through social media and flyers inviting students, parents, and the members of the community to come and participate. COVID led to a two-year pause, but the event came back last year to hack more than 100 toys—the biggest Hackathon yet.

Once the toys are hacked, they are wrapped and distributed to all the children in specialized healthcare classrooms, as well as to other students with significant motor impairments throughout the district. Outreach is done through speech therapists, occupational therapists, and alternative augmentative communication specialists. On Distribution Day, Bouwman says, it’s “just magical” watching the students unwrap and try out their new toys.

Salazar points out that for some families, a specially-equipped toy—which can cost upwards of $200—might be out of reach financially. Now they get it through the Hackathon. “They have something in their home now that their child can manipulate. And the child gets an opportunity to practice some of their communication goals and other great things that they learn through their service providers.” Studies have proven the importance of toys for the development of all children. Toys also can encourage children with disabilities to increase their interactions with others.

One of the reasons Salazar likes attending Distribution Day is because students with disabilities are seen and recognized at the event. “Often our students [that have disabilities] get to be part of events, but it’s not about them,” she says. “This is one event that really is about them.”

Benefits for All

During the first year of the Hackathon, Salazar was receptive but not entirely convinced. “There was some learning on my end as to why this was needed.” But, she has become the event’s biggest cheerleader. She says that watching the students with disabilities enjoying the toys that their general education peers have created has had a lasting impact on both the staff and the students.

The students who are doing the hacking develop a lens of accessibility and inclusivity that inspires other projects. Some are working with a 3D printer at the school to modify Chromebooks, keyboards, and iPad stands to make them work more seamlessly with other communication devices.

Another group of students is creating a cupholder that meets the needs of a specific student who uses a wheelchair, based on the student’s ability to grasp objects of a certain width. And still another group is customizing a visual schedule for a hard-of-hearing middle schooler who doesn’t always hear bells. The students interviewed her to get her input, asking what she likes, what her favorite colors are, and what she is interested in so they can design a visual schedule that will be more appealing to her. Salazar says, “It’s not a coincidence that that’s the site where the Hackathon was held. It has left a lasting impact and an impression on not only the staff but on the students as well.”

Salazar remembers a time that the district’s head of business operations was on campus. “He was there to talk about construction. I said, ‘Hey, do you want to come to the Hackathon?’ and he said ‘What is that?’ and just kind of wandered over. He stayed and he hacked a toy and was so happy. He still talks about it every time I see him.” This small interaction made him one of the “champions” that Salazar says are needed for a big idea like this to succeed.

Bouwman’s advice for those who want to not only comply with laws regarding students with disabilities but honor the spirit of those laws: “If you have an idea, run with it. Try it. Start small and grow big.” She says that LBUSD is always working to prioritize the needs and interests of the students. The community has recognized this and stepped up to participate.

According to Salazar, the event provides purpose for the students who do the hacking and helps them build understanding of the unique needs of the students they are designing for. “It gets us thinking,” she says, “about what else we can do.”

Additional Resources

Six Strategies for Creative Compliance with School Reform. Corwin Connect. https://corwin-connect.com/2019/11/6-strategies-for-creative-compliance-to-school-reform/

Acharya, N., & Rodriguez, D. Fostering Creativity. (2021, Fall). Journal for Leadership ad Instruction. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1328075.pdf

References:

[1] Nunes, E. P. S., Conceição, V. & Santos, L. V. G., Pereira, M. F. L. & Borges, L. C. L. (2017). Inclusive Toys for Rehabilitation of Children with Disability: A Systematic Review. 503–514. 10.1007/978-3-319-58706-6_41

Addressing California’s Teacher Shortages

California is creating multiple new pathways to becoming a teacher.

  • Just two years ago Vanessa Mejia was an instructional assistant in the Santa Ana Unified School District. Today she is a special education teacher in the district thanks to a partnership between Santa Ana and Chapman University that allows non-credentialed district employees to earn a master’s degree and a teaching credential.
  • Oscar Navarro, an assistant professor at California State University, Long Beach, recently wrapped up his second semester as the instructor of a high school class in the Paramount Unified School district, a college-level class designed to encourage students to consider a career in teaching.
  • In an effort to recruit and train diverse teacher candidates who more accurately reflect the student population in Northern California, staff in the School of Education at Cal State, Chico, are using federal and state grants to break down the financial barriers that keep many people of color from becoming teachers.

These are just a few of the innovative methods California is employing to address a persistent shortage of teachers – and not just in the fields of math, science, and special education, where the shortage is chronic.

Although there has been an increase in the number of credentialed teachers in California in recent years, “there are still shortages across the board,” says Shireen Pavri, assistant vice chancellor of the California State University (CSU) system. On its 23 campuses, CSU prepares more California teachers than all other institutions in the state combined. Two factors adding to the shortage: teacher retirements during the pandemic and the need for credentialed teachers in the state’s new Universal Transitional Kindergarten classes.

 
The pandemic increased public appreciation for teachers.
 

While the pandemic caused disruption in education and led many teachers to resign or retire, there were some positive outcomes, too. “The pandemic increased public appreciation for teachers,” says Pavri. “It increased understanding of the challenges they face, and it increased investment” in the profession.

That investment is manifested in a variety of recruiting and training efforts across the state. Here are a few of them.

Residency Programs

California has invested more than $400 million in a teacher residency program designed to give candidates actual classroom experience alongside a mentor teacher while they are enrolled in an approved university preparation program.

Pavri says the residency program builds close relationships between CSU campuses and the school districts where residents do their fieldwork. “The beauty of the residency is that what you learn [in college], you can immediately apply in the classroom where there is an experienced person to learn from.”

The state pays $25,000 to college residency programs for each resident, but many residents have found they are struggling financially. Their educational expenses are paid, but there is no requirement that they be given direct stipends to cover living expenses. Programs can use the grant to cover administrative and other expenses or pay mentor teachers. As a result, fewer candidates are applying for residency programs than had been anticipated.

To bolster the program, the CSU Residency Year Scholarship began in the 2019-20 school year. Funded by private foundations, it offers grants of $5,000-$10,000 to candidates in CSU teacher residency programs who demonstrate financial need and who commit to teaching in a high-need school, teaching English learners, and/or supporting students with special needs for at least two years.

There also is “an indication,” says Pavri that there will be increased funding for traditional residency grants. “We have to make sure we’re giving the residents a living wage.”

Recruiting Teachers of Color

The Learning Policy Institute surveyed 60,00 students who had completed teacher preparation programs and reported that access to highly rated preparation programs and clinical experiences for teacher candidates is unequal,
“with Black and Native American completers as well as education specialists having less access than their peers.”

So it’s not surprising that recruitment efforts throughout the state emphasize the need to increase the number of teachers of color. California State University (CSU)-Chico has received a three year, $13.4 million NorCal Great Teacher Pipeline grant from the U. S. Department of Education as well as a Center Center for Transformational Educator Preparation Programs (CTEPP) grant to do just that.

The federal grant, awarded in October 2022, provides support to ease the financial burden that future teachers will face. “We hit the ground running and started funding in January,” says Tal Slemrod, associate professor of
special education at CSU-Chico. The goal is to remove the financial barriers that keep underserved populations from becoming teachers. Priority is given to people of color, people with disabilities, and veterans who want to teach in Northern California. “We had more than 300 applicants for spring semester,” says Slemrod, “and we funded 160 students.” Almost 700 have applied for fall 2023.

In addition to financial support, another goal of the grant is to help students become teachers who are prepared with the social-emotional skills that will serve them in the classroom. “All participants are required to attend professional development sessions, and a major component is social-emotional learning,” Slemrod says.

The CTEPP grant, a state initiative funded at 10 campuses through the CSU system and supported by the Gates Foundation, focuses on recruiting, preparing, and retaining Black, Indigenous, and other teachers of color. Representatives of the 10 campuses participate in quarterly working sessions to collaborate and share their experiences in the program. Erin Whitney coordinates the grant at Chico. “We’re trying to reach people who maybe haven’t thought of teaching,” she says.

Classified Staff

Many school districts are looking to “grow their own” teaching staff and are eyeing district employees who do not have teaching credentials but would like to become teachers. These “classified employees” include administrative staff and classroom aides.

CSU campuses offer grants of $4,000 to support these teacher candidates. “The classified employee program is one of our most popular programs,” says Pavri. “These are folks who understand the community; they are coming from the community they want to serve.” Many are from diverse backgrounds and are fluent in languages other than English.

The partnership between private Chapman University and the Santa Ana Unified School specifically trains special education teachers.

Vanessa Mejia was part of that “grow your own” movement. She attended Santa Ana schools, lives in the area, and had been working as an instructional assistant. She participated in the Special Education Teacher Program at Chapman and today, as a credentialed teacher in Santa Ana, she works with students with mild moderate disabilities and teaches a self-contained English class. Now there are assistants in her classroom, and she is the mentor: “I encourage them to pursue their degree and credential.”

Omar Ezzeldine is director of classified professional development at Santa Ana. When programs like those at Chapman and nearby CSU-Fullerton offer classified employees the chance to become teachers, “they experience a sense of validation,” he says. The programs “take people who wouldn’t be able to do this without financing and alleviate their financial woes.” Like Mejia, many of the participants “were raised in this neighborhood and went through our schools,” says Ezzeldine. “When you get these people in front of our students, the students are more likely to feel connected to learning. And that matters to student achievement.”

The High Schools

For the past two spring semesters an elective, college-level class, “Introduction to Teaching for Equity in Diverse Contexts,” has been taught at Paramount High School Senior Campus in the Paramount Unified School District. In a school district that is 90 percent Latino and nearly 100 percent students of color, the class is designed to recruit teachers of color by introducing them to education as a potential career.

Like similar classes springing up across the state, Paramount Pathways is a partnership between a university, CSU-Long Beach, and a local school district. Oscar Navarro, an assistant professor at Long Beach, and a former high school teacher, has been the instructor. “It’s been really beneficial for the university to work with the school district and explore how we think about a college trajectory for the students,” Navarro says.

Eight students enrolled in the first class in spring 2022. “We weren’t sure how many we would have this year, but 42 students expressed interest, and we enrolled 30. Many were drawn by the opportunity to take a college course,” he said. Students receive dual high school and college credit for the class and can apply the credit at any CSU.

The class includes a fieldtrip to the CSU campus. “There was so much interest,” Navarro says. “For many of the students it was their first time on a college campus.”

Paramount Pathways is funded by the U.S. Department of Education.

The grant covers an end-of-the-year event where students gather with invited guests. The speaker this year, Navarro says, was a former Paramount student “who is getting a special ed credential” at Long Beach “and wants to come back to teach within the district.”

Planning for a similar class is happening at Chico State, which will offer a class at Oroville Union High School in fall 2023. “We’re trying to build a teaching pipeline by letting kids know that this is a possible career,” says Kristin Lower, grants coordinator in the College of Communication and Education at Chico.

Oroville Superintendent Corey Willenberg says he’s “excited about the class. We know we will start small”—10 students have signed up—but we hope to grow the class.” Hiring special education staff “has been a challenge for us, so part of the course will be an introduction to both general and special education.” The class will be team-taught by a teacher at Oroville and a faculty member from Chico.

Lower says other school districts have expressed interest in partnering on classes like ones in the Oroville and Paramount High Schools.

Many other efforts are underway to increase and broaden the pool of California teachers.

What they show in total is that the California is investing in recruiting, training, and retaining a teaching workforce that reflects the multicultural state in which we live.

Voice, Choice, and Paper Cranes: The Power of Universal Design for Learning

By Katie Novak, Ed.D.

As a teacher, I was humbled by a paper crane.

Fifteen years ago, my class had just finished a short excerpt from the novel Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes. To make the story come alive, I invited the mother of one of my students to teach the class how to make their own cranes. She brought kami, the Japanese word for origami paper, and ignited the magic of origami in the hearts of my middle schoolers. And this was no one-size-fits-all origami party. There were choices! For weeks, my classroom was adorned with origami frogs, intricate airplanes, and of course, those paper cranes. It was a lesson trifecta, ticking off the boxes of engagement, active learning, and parent involvement. Needless to say, I was feeling pretty proud of myself!

Promoting Universal Design for Learning: The Supporting Inclusive Practices Project

The Supporting Inclusive Practice Project (SIP) provides statewide technical assistance to educational communities in their pursuit of inclusive and equitable systems. SIP is funded by California Department of Education, Special Education Division.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is central to the project’s work. SIP hosts a website, podcasts, recorded webinars, an international virtual inclusion conference, and social media that feature UDL resources promoting meaningful inclusion beyond Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) compliance requirements.

The project is directly involved in the California System of Support, specifically the Placer SELPA Open Access Lead Agency, while also partnering with the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence (CCEE) in its work to promote UDL statewide in schools. SIP has participated in the development of CCEE’s resource The UDL Journey Guide, and the SIP team is a leadership voice in the California UDL Coalition, which is committed to offering UDL statewide.

The project collaboratively hosts a community of practice through the California UDL Network with the Orange County and San Joaquin County Offices of Education (scroll to the bottom of the page), which meets three times a year and is open to all educators who are interested in learning about, strengthening, and disseminating UDL in California’s classrooms.

Through the thoughtful, system-wide implementation of universally designed instruction and environments, the SIP project seeks to empower each student to be purposeful and motivated, resourceful, and knowledgeable, and strategic and goal directed within an environment of belonging, community, and connection. For more information, go to https://www.sipinclusion.org/

James, who has autism and unique learning needs, found a sense of purpose and excitement through the art of paper folding. In a time before fidget tools became popular, he devoted himself to origami, adorning the classroom with a chain of colorful birds that wrapped my whiteboard like a garland. Days passed, and those birds kept on multiplying. The more I watched, the more I recognized that the birds had usurped any other learning in the classroom.

Taking advantage of a moment when students were engrossed in a peer review task, I quietly approached his desk, squatting beside him. I whispered, “Jamie, I’ve noticed that you’ve been focused on making paper cranes during class, and I’m not seeing evidence of your learning. Are you able to make the cranes and pay attention at the same time?”

Jamie didn’t look up at me, but he responded swiftly, “Oh no, I’m not paying attention to anything you say.”

Well, that was not what I expected! Attempting to regain my composure, I asked, “Well, is there something that’s been distracting you lately, or something going on at home?” Jamie set his crane on the desk, prepared to deliver the news. “Well, actually, Mrs. Novak. It’s you. You’re painfully boring.” (Cue a paper bag for me to breathe into.)

This is not the type of feedback teachers hope to receive. No one wants to be the boring teacher. And I was the fun teacher, I told myself. He had to be mistaken. I gave him another chance. “Do you mean that this particular lesson is boring or that I’m boring all the time?”

He took a deep breath, accepting that he was going to have to spell it out for me. “All. The. Time.”

It wasn’t possible, I told myself. I spent hours and hours making learning exciting, fun, and engaging for learners. Case in point: I put on a puppet theatre for a scene in The Old Man and the Sea. I even gave them a choice of cutting out Santiago paper dolls or making puppets with yarn for hair! Fun. Teacher.

Back to Jamie. I sought his permission to address the entire class regarding my status as the “painfully boring” teacher. He assured me that he didn’t mind, giving me the go-ahead to pose the question to the class. I cleared my throat, “It has come to my attention that I may be boring, and I would love to know if you think this is true.” At this point, imagine 30 awkward stares. I continued, “I promise I will not be mad, as the most important thing here is that, if I am in fact boring, we address it. Please, please raise your hand if you think this class is boring.”

I don’t have to tell you the punchline of this story. Yep, I was the boring teacher. As a feeble attempt to heal my wounds, the students assured me that they still liked me. And I was funny. But it was undeniably clear that the class itself was, well—you guessed it—boring.

UDL is not a “fun meter” or the simple act of providing choice. It is the expression of a belief that all students are capable of learning at high levels.

The heartbreaking subtext of this story is that during that intervention, I thought I was implementing Universal Design for Learning (UDL). I was a fierce advocate for inclusion and professional collaboration, and
I really thought that by making class fun, I was making it inclusive. But with the benefit of hindsight, I can admit that there wasn’t a lot of deep learning happening in that classroom. I was so focused on being fun and including all learners that I didn’t articulate clear academic standards, seek out the barriers that prevented mastery, and listen to students and colleagues to eliminate those barriers.

UDL is not a “fun meter” or the simple act of providing choice. It is the expression of a belief that all students are capable of learning at high levels and that instruction, when crafted and implemented with this belief, can help all students succeed in inclusive and equitable learning environments by ensuring that they have what they need to be successful.

It is disheartening that UDL is often misconceived as a mere gauge of fun or entertainment, overlooking its true purpose. So many teachers will argue, “I’m already doing UDL,” when students are excluded, disengaged, silenced, or not learning at high levels. UDL goes beyond superficial entertainment; it involves embracing the unique diversity of learners, identifying and addressing barriers that prevent students from fully participating in classrooms alongside their peers, and offering multiple pathways for each student to receive the necessary support and challenge in order to achieve proficiency in grade-level standards. As much as I knew about UDL, I wasn’t fully implementing UDL.

The day after Boring-Gate, I confronted reality head-on and asked my students how we could have made our unit on The Old Man and the Sea more engaging. One brave soul spoke up and said, “Maybe we shouldn’t have read The Old Man and the Sea at all.” Ouch. The hits just kept on coming.

In truth, my students were right. There was no standard dictating that every student must read the same novel, especially in a traditional printed format. And there certainly wasn’t a standard mandating puppet-making. I had been designing activities for entertainment rather than inclusivity, inadvertently excluding many students from the learning experience. And I could change that.

My goal was not to entertain students but to make learning worthwhile, meaningful, and enjoyable. That meant different things to different students. For example, when I asked them whether they enjoyed the option to make a paper doll or puppet, the biggest compliment I received, which is totally cringe-worthy, was, “Well, it wasted a lot of time, so that was good.”

My students pushed me to articulate firm goals for learning, which I realized was not an area of strength. I had to dig deep to find a standard that remotely related to my puppet theatre. The best I could do was “Analyze how particular elements of a story or drama interact (e.g., how a story’s setting shapes the characters or plot).”

Recognizing that we did not, in fact, address that standard, I asked them to choose a text and propose how they could share their analysis of how the setting shapes the characters. Together, we created success criteria, a rubric, and a choice board.

Some students chose to write the response in an essay, others chose a poem, while others created an infographic, recorded a video, or made a podcast. Students chose if they wanted to work alone, or with a partner, and they advocated for feedback on drafts so they could revise before receiving a mark. They won. From that point forward, students could revise any/all assignments with no penalty. They also pushed me to institute “Hooray, Hooray. It’s Rewrite Day” every week when I did not provide any new instruction; since many students felt the pace was too fast, and they threw my own words back at me when they added, “And besides, you also say the best writing is rewriting.” The less I planned, the more my students learned, especially Jamie.

Promoting Universal Design for Learning:
The Open Access Project
The foundational belief of the Open Access Project is that, with access to quality curriculum and instruction, students with disabilities can engage, actively participate, and learn within inclusive settings. As such, the project supports the implementation of Universal Design for Learning across all learning environments by incorporating digital tools and/or accessible technologies (AT) into designing instruction.

The project also provides access to augmentative alternative communication (AAC) strategies and supports for students with complex communication needs.

The Placer County Special Education Local Plan Area (SELPA) directs the project, which is funded by the California Department of Education and the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence.

The project is also supported by the Placer County Office of Education and serves within California’s Statewide System of Support. For more information, go to https://www.openaccess-ca.org.

He stopped making quite so many cranes. When given a choice of texts to read in the spring, he chose A Christmas Carol on audio (note: It was on a CD!) and insisted that he share his analysis of how the setting shaped Ebenezer Scrooge by reading his response in a British accent because he thought it sounded more distinguished than his own American English. I mean, how could I ever have come up with that option? Oh. And he nailed it.

UDL has come full circle in my life. Now, I am the momma of four brilliant children, including an amazing daughter with complex ADHD, and I see its importance even more. One day, as this daughter proudly sported a rainbow wig to school, I couldn’t help but ask, ”Why are you wearing that?” Her response, “That’s a weird question,” not only caught me off guard but also sparked a profound appreciation for her unique perspective and unwavering confidence. Aylin, a vibrant soul who adores carnivals and cotton candy machines, thrives in classrooms that embrace and celebrate her voice and passions. She possesses the unfiltered honesty of Jamie and delivers feedback with sass, even when it’s unsolicited.

Aylin requires an educational environment where her voice is not only valued but also amplified, allowing her to freely share her love for balloon art, face painting, and claw machines. Above all, should Aylin ever encounter moments of boredom, overwhelm, or disconnection, my hope is that she consistently finds teachers who will listen, acknowledge the barriers she faces, and respond with grace. This, fundamentally, encapsulates the essence of Universal Design for Learning.

Looking back at that moment when Jamie called me out for being “painfully boring,” I can’t help but laugh. Little did I know that his feedback would serve as a catalyst for my own growth as an educator and my journey toward embracing the true principles of UDL. It was a lesson in humility, reminding me that the path to inclusive and meaningful learning is paved with collaboration, student voice, and a willingness to adapt and evolve. It was also a reminder that “doing UDL” is not the goal; rather, it’s about cultivating an educational environment where every student can thrive, where their unique strengths and aspirations are celebrated, and where their voices are heard.

Promoting Universal Design for Learning: The California Coalition for Inclusive Literacy
The California Coalition for Inclusive Literacy (CCIL) supports the design and delivery of universally designed professional learning in literacy development, equipping teachers and paraeducators with tools and strategies to provide students with disabilities with access to grade level content standards in inclusive classroom environments. Through a tiered service model of universal, targeted, and intensive technical assistance, CCIL fosters inclusive educational and literacy practices in general and special educational settings, increasing educators’ capacity to provide supports for students with overlapping educational needs. CCIL’s universal supports ensure that educators across California can acquire the essential knowledge to provide access to grade level literacy activities within the general education setting.
For more information, go to https://ccil.cast.org/

The Promise of Alternative Dispute Resolution

Jason A. Harper, ADR Consultant

The partnership between a family and a school district, particularly through the lens of special education, is an important and often underappreciated relationship. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) states that children who qualify for special education services are entitled to receive services from age 3 until they graduate with a high school diploma (or reach the age of 22). In many experiences, that adds up to a 19-year relationship between a family and the schools.

This relationship involves interactions between and among a multitude of experts— all with their own view and experience of the student and based on their technical expertise. They come together once each year to create a plan for the Individualized Education Program (IEP) for the student. The mainstay in the team is the parent[1] or parent representative, who is an expert on the child’s strengths, experiences, and goals.

Much like any long-term relationship, the connections among the members of the IEP team can include positive and nurturing aspects. These connections can also include conflict. People will disagree. Team members may perceive a threat to their interests. Or people may feel their concerns are being ignored. Essentially, conflict can happen when a situation does not align with expectations.

Perhaps the most extreme illustration of how fraught the team relationships can be is the assertion by some parents that the IEP meeting is a “dream funeral,” with experts surrounding them to explain that their child is learning below the level of most general education students. With each successive report and meeting, the family says goodbye to dreams that they had for their child. Each family occupies its unique point on the grief cycle—sometimes unbeknownst to the rest of the IEP team.

Over the course of a student’s IEP meetings, unrealized expectations can lead parents to feel that their needs are not being met. The issue may be as simple as the number and frequency of communications between a parent and service provider or teacher throughout the school year. The team may not directly discuss with parents or family members what their expectations for communication are. Parents may wait until their expectations are not being met before they speak up about it. And when team members feel threatened, they can respond in ways that can drive the IEP team apart—and that can lead to damaged relationships and even litigation.

The good news is that going to court is not the only answer to disagreements even complicated ones. In fact, it is rarely the best answer. Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) offers an inexpensive and easily available alternative.

ADR is an intervention that supports members of IEP teams to resolve conflicts. It is an informal process that has been used successfully for decades to resolve family and district/local education agency (LEA) concerns and/or disagreements about providing special education services to students with disabilities. In general, ADR is designed to meet the interests of everyone involved with the student so that they can come to a mutually agreed-upon outcome—and avoid litigation, which can be financially and emotionally costly.

History

ADR became a feature of IDEA during its reauthorization in 1997. The Act called for more collaborative decision-making and problem-solving by parents and schools, leading to the provision mandating that states offer mediation to settle disputes.

The spirit of IDEA is inclusive. When the U.S. Congress passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act in 1975, the first iteration of IDEA, the law included provisions that ensured that parents be afforded the opportunity to be active participants in decisions about their child’s education. One provision was the requirement that parents be included in the collaborative decision-making process of the student’s IEP. The law also recognized the rights of parents to challenge decisions about their student’s education plan. At times, that collaborative decision-making process can result in conflict that can make people feel like there is a battle between parents and the school. But IDEA creates space for the table to be a circle (all-inclusive with equal footing), not a square (inherently adversarial).

ADR offers different levels of intervention that can be used during the span of a student’s IEP experience. These levels range from the proactive or preventive (which includes professional development, conflict coaching, and IEP facilitation) to the reactive (which includes informal resolution sessions). More than anything, the result of using an ADR intervention of any kind is that participants feel better about the IEP process as well as the people involved in it.

 
Professional development can be the best way to equip administrators and staff to build relationships during the school year.
 

Successes

Many districts and Special Education Local Plan Area (SELPA) organizations that have adopted ADR practices in recent years, along with the parents they serve, are seeing the positive effects of ADR. Rick Homutoff, program manager with the East Valley SELPA in San Bernardino, says, “Our member districts know that we are always trying to work with our families to avoid conflict. We also build ADR as a practice into most of the training we provide to the staff members of our districts so they can go back to their districts better prepared and to train their own staff.” The positive effects can be seen through data. Homutoff continues, “The [East Valley] SELPA serves five member districts and approximately 10,000 students with special needs. In the 2017–2018 school year, we received 58 due process filings. Since then, we have had a steady decline, and in the 2021–2022 school year we were down to 24.”

Professional Development

A first preventive level of intervention within ADR is professional development for teachers, administrators, and even family members. Regardless of the audience, the point is to equip the participants with better communication skills that enable them to speak and listen more effectively— to listen for the expressed and unexpressed needs of the team members, to manage and direct contentious moments, to understand the effects of implicit bias and how it can affect relationships, and to recognize and ameliorate one’s own biases and not let them affect decisions. Professional development can provide a range of benefits, from a small tip that can be used to manage conflict in the next meeting, to providing a full template for effectively facilitating an entire meeting.

Paul Delbick, director of the Sierra Sands SELPA east of Bakersfield, views professional development as the best way to equip his administrators and staff to be ready to build relationships during the school year. He
does this by having “an ADR professional come and speak to our staff, including our assistant superintendents and transportation department. It really sets the tone for us when it comes to the big picture of the education process. We learn about how the elements of success for meetings really come down to how people are treated while information is being delivered. We spend so much time on the legal aspects of the IEP, but it wouldn’t matter how clearly we explain information if the members of the team hate each other. At the end of the day, people don’t sue people that they like, and that’s why we need to develop that mindset with our admin and staff.”

From the parent standpoint, professional development sessions can be empowering. One parent stated, “The IEP meeting can be a very intimidating environment, whether it’s your first or your fiftieth meeting.” So she calls “professional development” what district refers to as “Parent Talks.”

“Parents also have a job to do in the IEP meeting,” she say. “We learn about the IEP process, understanding different cultural aspects to communication, and even learn how to build trust and rapport with the other members of the team. These sessions help us learn how to communicate with the other members of the IEP team so that we’re all speaking as close to the same language as possible.”

Included in “Parent Talks” can be an overview of Parent’s Rights and Procedural Safeguards—a summation of the student’s rights under IDEA. In that discussion, the ADR professional talks with families about their responsibilities in the creation of the IEP meeting, from their right to meaningfully participate to how to properly give consent.

An example of professional development that is shared with both district staff and parents is the topic of mindfulness. When individuals are in a heightened state due to conflict, the body receives a physiological response (heat on the back of the neck, butterflies in the stomach, etc.) that can lead to a behavioral response (lashing out, getting quiet, walking out, etc.). The result is less communication and potentially more hostility. Instead of the body guiding how the person communicates, the participants are taught to use mindfulness to manage thoughts and emotions that may be clouding rational thought and affecting their ability to hear people accurately. The key is to identify what emotion is being felt, where the emotion is coming from, and how the emotion is affecting the person in the moment. Naming these aspects of the emotion removes its taboo nature and allows team members to see the issue for what it is. Once the emotion has been identified, the person is able to more effectively manage it and has the choice to consciously tuck it away, since it is not serving the person in the moment— or to declare it out loud, say what is causing it, and elect to discuss it with the rest of the team. In doing this, the person is now controlling the emotion, rather than the emotion controlling the person’s actions during the meeting.

The information from these ADR professional development sessions not only gives parents and district staff tools and tips for conflict management. What they learn also makes them more confident in the process and more trusting of the other people on the team.

Conflict Coaching

A more intensive version of professional development is the conflict coaching offered within ADR. With this kind of coaching, an ADR professional— or other person trained in ADR strategies— has a targeted session with a single person or small group of people to discuss proactive strategies for managing conflict within their respective IEP teams. Two types of conflict coaching from the district and parent perspectives are sessions called “case autopsy” and “parent partners.”

In a case autopsy session, an ADR professional reviews a recent special education due process case (or a case involving a high level of conflict) with district administrators, discusses the events that led to the due process filing or high level of conflict, and analyzes what led to the deterioration of the relationship. Kimberly Schulist, a special education ADR professional who conducts case autopsies, says that “It’s important to analyze the pivotal relational moments in special education matters because perceptions and minor miscommunications can drive the filings just as much as the actual services that may have been omitted in an IEP. In doing these ‘autopsies,’ the district can find ways to strengthen and repair the relationships with their families to prevent ongoing negative perceptions and communication.”

An example is a recent case where the issue was a lack of responsiveness to the family on the part of the case manager related to data collection. An ADR professional reviewed the email exchanges along with the IEP notes, analyzing the moments where the case manager could have responded differently to the email request. The professional observed that as the conflict grew, the parent began adding more people to the emails— including members of the board of education— in their desire to get the requested data related to the student’s goals, while the case manager assumed the team would wait until the IEP meeting to share the data. The issue boiled down to expectations in communication. The case manager viewed the data presentation as a part of the larger IEP discussion, while the family expected the email communication to be honored. In the end, the ADR professional spoke to the special education director about how to have a conversation with the family to clarify expectations around communication, and suggested training on how to spot a similar communication breakdown like this moving forward.

 
In a new form of coaching, trained parents help other parents strengthen their communication skills to better manage conflict.
 

While it is typical for ADR professionals to provide coaching to families on conflict management, there is a new form of coaching where trained parents help other parents strengthen their communication skills to better manage conflict. In the Antelope Valley and Santa Clarita, a program called Parent Partners was formed, under which five parents field calls from family members who want to work through conflict within their IEP teams. The purpose is to build communication and remove cultural/linguistic barriers or other obstacles that can impede collaboration between family members and school staff. The Parent Partners are trained in ethics and in strategies for working with conflict and emotions, de-escalation tactics, and cross-cultural communication.

One of the Parent Partners, Angelike Martin, says, “My work as a Parent Partner has been the best experience for me in terms of moving past the emotions that come with being a ‘SpEd parent’ and into becoming an effective team member, which makes us all better advocates for our own children. There are times when I am speaking with a parent, and I think back to the days when I felt alone, helpless, and angry. I think that being a Parent Partner sometimes helps me more than it helps the people that reach out to me.”

Martin says that hearing about the personal experiences of the Parent Partners can give family members confidence “to become proactively involved in their own child’s success. Moving past the dark feelings that can come with parenting a SpEd student into being an important contributor to a successful team effort is a very powerful thing. That’s why Parent Partners exist. We need to be cognizant that the end result is always more important than what’s bothering us on any given day. I always say, ‘Just because we can’t finish the journey today doesn’t mean we can’t start it.’”

The Parent Partner program empowers and encourages families in various situations. Maritza Pedro, another Parent Partner, speaks with parents who are experiencing cultural differences during the IEP process. “When parents come to me, I can sense their fear, anxiety, and intimidation because that’s where I was.” She continues, “When I was in the IEP meeting for my own child, I was always afraid to talk because I didn’t naturally speak the language, I didn’t know what all the words meant, and I was afraid to ask.

Ultimately, I learned that other members of the IEP team want us to be able to follow along and understand everything, so you don’t have to be afraid to ask for an explanation of terms or assessment procedures. So, when I talk with these families about how to communicate effectively in the process, there is a sense of comfort, security, and most importantly, confidence.”

IEP Facilitation

The most often-used ADR intervention is IEP facilitation during meetings. In this intervention, a neutral facilitator attends an IEP meeting with the explicit task of keeping members of the team focused on the development of the IEP while addressing conflicts and concerns that may arise. The facilitator’s intervention can completely change the tone of the meeting, lessening people’s anxiety and making them more comfortable in their respective roles.

Precious Young, mother of a child with an IEP, says that the IEP meeting holds great significance. “This is the one opportunity that I get each year to hear a snapshot of what goes on with my child when she’s away from me. I always need time to process this information because it’s emotional.” At her recent IEP meeting, emotions were heightened because her daughter had reached 22 years of age and was preparing to exit out of services. She credits the neutral facilitator for making the meeting go as smoothly as it did and everyone walking away happy. “The pre-work of the ADR specialist was especially helpful in ensuring that the meeting attendees were prepared, and things were transparent and compliant during the IEP meeting. I can appreciate the work of the ADR specialist because I didn’t have to keep my radar up for compliance. She took care of that.”

Informal Resolution Sessions

Prior to filing for due process, the last level of ADR intervention is the informal resolution session. A resolution session is a confidential, facilitated meeting run by an independent and neutral facilitator who assists the family and district in reaching a resolution when there is disagreement or unresolved concern related to a student’s IEP, services, or assessment. Given the stakes, the level of pressure and anxiety can run high for the family— and for the district staff and administrative personnel. This is another area where the ADR professional can be helpful.

Parent Tosha Hayes recalls her experience with the resolution session— and the anxiety that came with it. “This past year I experienced my first IEP [where I] did not feel heard, nor did
I feel that it was collaborative. [The meeting] left me feeling very frustrated and discouraged that my child would not get her needs met. As a result, my first consultative meeting with an ADR specialist was scheduled. I had the opportunity to share my experience of my daughter’s IEP group and how the communication had been problematic. In response, I was met with ‘conflict coaching’ in how best to communicate my concerns regarding my daughter’s IEP.” The ADR professional/conflict coach “led me through the process of a resolution session, and I was presented with an alternative perspective on how to proceed. I was encouraged to reframe my view of the group as team members who I, in fact, have relationships with and to understand that the relationship does not have to remain hostile.”

In the end, the ADR professional creates the setting and facilitates the discussion so that family members and district administrators can create an agreement that supports repairing the relationship. Director Sharon Azmon of the Lawndale Elementary School District sums up the effect of ADR by saying, “The ADR process has been invaluable in salvaging and repairing relationships with families. On numerous occasions the ADR process has provided my families with a neutral facilitator and a supportive voice without the ominous implications of legal entanglements. Ultimately, the positive outcomes for the family and district help re-establish trust and refocus toward the common goal of supporting the child.”

The use of Alternative Dispute Resolution has proven that the long-term relationship between families and schools can grow and improve when each team member is given the tools to participate effectively in the IEP process.

[1]We use the word “parent” to mean anyone who holds education rights for a child, including biological parents, foster parents, guardians, surrogate parents, or other responsible adults appointed by the court.

Community Schools: Many Ways to Student Success

Tanya Garcia often finds herself in the parking lot of Anaheim High School in Southern California. She’ll be there organizing free farmers markets or coordinating emergency meals or other necessities for the school’s students and families. Garcia has been working for three years at this large, urban school as its community school coordinator. She has seen firsthand how the practical resources from Second Harvest Food Bank —and the full range of services and supports that her community school provides—can contribute to better outcomes for her students and their families.

Kristin Sobilo is the principal at Alice Birney Elementary School in the Eureka City School District in Northern California. Her district has recently received a California Community Schools Partnership Program Grant (CCSPP Grant) from the California Department of Education (CDE) and is just beginning to adopt a community school model at three of its sites, Alice Birney among them. Sobilo and her colleagues are busy using survey information that the district has gathered to build “the type of community school that students and families need and want,” she says. They are just beginning.

Garcia and Sobilo are in very different places, literally and figuratively: one urban, the other rural; one a high school, the other an elementary school; one community school that has been evolving for years, the other a community school that is just getting started. Despite these differences, the educators in both places are focusing on the same challenges: communicating effectively, creating relationships, and ensuring every student is well served.

The History

The community schools model gained national attention in New York City in 2014, when it was introduced to address two seemingly intractable problems: poor student attendance and high drop-out rates.

New York decided to use this model, which is based on the understanding that a child’s social, emotional, cognitive, and academic development, as well as physical and mental health, are all connected. And if a child’s basic needs aren’t met—for food and safety, for example—the child cannot learn. A community school works with families and community partners to become a hub for serving the “whole child” and to provide whatever the child needs in order to learn through a coordinated, “wrap-around” framework.

New York’s plan was successful. A recent report from the RAND Corporation shows that, in the intervening decade, drop-out rates declined in the city’s schools, attendance increased, students made notable improvements in their academic outcomes, and “disciplinary incidents were significantly less frequent than in comparison to Elementary and Middle Schools.”

The Investment

California has been paying attention. A few schools across the state adopted a community schools model during the earlier part of this century. Then in 2021 the state invested $3 billion to strengthen those existing community schools and to create new ones, targeting high-need and low-income communities.

This investment reflects the state’s ongoing commitment not just to a community school approach specifically but to a unified system of education in general. The community schools model features a framework for coordinating and aligning the many initiatives and directives California already has in place to improve student outcomes—multi-tiered system of support, social and emotional learning, positive behavioral interventions and support, college and career readiness, family engagement, and community partnerships, among others. The state’s more recent investment in “whole child” education includes funding for youth-based behavioral health, expanded learning opportunities, universal transitional kindergarten, increased staffing in high-need schools, and professional learning for educators. This commitment also promises to be effectively incorporated into the community schools model. A community school, by definition, coordinates and aligns them all. And it does more.

The model also builds on the foundational principle of the Local Control Funding Formula, in which California’s government ceded to each educational locality the authority to decide how to educate its children. There is no formula for the “right kind” of community school. Each evolves from the uniqueness of a place—its particular students, families, cultures, community, resources, strengths, and needs.

Finally, the investment is a clear demonstration of the state’s commitment to equity. Those schools with high numbers of students who live in poverty, who are disadvantaged, or who are generally underserved will be given priority in receiving community school dollars.

Beginnings

After 75 percent of the schools in the Anaheim Union High School District (AUHSD) were funded as community schools through the California Community Schools Partnership Program, the district has become what Garcia calls a “deep dive model district.” This large investment in the community schools model didn’t suddenly emerge; it evolved from a decades-old commitment to family engagement and cultural and linguistic responsiveness, well before 2016 when it was made a priority by the Local Control Funding Formula. “We’ve put a lot of resources behind involving families,” says Garcia. “The idea of community schools started gaining traction from the advocacy and the work that the family and community engagement specialists were doing.”.

Araceli Huerta has been with the Anaheim Union High School District (AUHSD) since 2011. When she was hired as a school-community liaison, she says, “liaisons were meant to build a bridge between the school and families to help them navigate the education system. Fast forward a few years and our district went from having a few liaisons to having a family and community engagement specialist at every site across the district.” These professionals were charged with “meeting families where they’re at,” she says, “and ensuring that they can advocate within the system for their students and themselves—to ensure that the system is working for them.”

From there, family engagement and community partnership efforts grew and strengthened. “We were able to get seed money through a grant” from North Orange Continuing Education (NOCE), says Huerta, a grant that was made possible by the working relationship the district had developed with NOCE. “That’s how we were able to bring community schools into AUHSD and fund pilot [community schools] coordinators and try this out at two of our sites. So, the idea of community schooling and whole-child education has been part and parcel of the work we’ve been doing at the school district for a long time.”

Huerta currently serves as the community schools coordinator at Sycamore Junior High School, a feeder school to the high school where Garcia works. As of 2022, she says, “We have our own community school and family and community engagement department and our own manager. Our board created this.”

Working closely with the established family and community engagement department, Garcia says, “is central to the growing success of this community school effort.” Huerta and Garcia both express appreciation for the commitment that district leadership has consistently shown to serving families in the community.

Currently, AUHSD has the highest concentration of community schools in the state. How the district defines a community school is both practical and aspirational: “a safe place at the heart of the community where students, staff and families are connected and work together to expand opportunities and address the needs of the whole child so that all students can thrive and realize their unlimited potential.”

In comparison, Eureka is just starting to create its community schools legacy. Ronda Evans, who serves as the community schools coordinator for the Eureka Unified City School District, wrote and acquired the Community Schools Partnership Program Grant in 2022. The district articulated its goal as one of “building community and family partnerships to improve student learning.” A Community Schools Advisory Council has been formed to provide guidance on the next steps, but much is yet to be determined.

Both efforts, however, are focused on making sure all of the adults involved understand the mission.

Educating the Adults

One of “the biggest challenges of successfully implementing the community school model,” says Huerta, is ensuring that teachers, parents, and school staff understand how a community school “benefits what we’re already doing, and what that means for every teacher. When people think of community schools, they think first about wrap-around services,” she says. Services that come from developing community-school partnerships—with Second Harvest Food Bank of Orange County, for example, or North Orange Continuing Education—are important to student success.

Community schools, however, involve more than gathering community resources, and even more than making all of those resources available. Huerta and Garcia see their job as both larger and more particular. “We have to ensure,” says Huerta, “that every kid, every day, every period is getting what they need in the classroom and at school to prepare them for a successful future of their choosing.” She and Garcia focus on educating their colleagues on this vision.

“We make sure that all of our staff understand that when we’re talking about community schools, it’s all of us.” For a teacher, says Huerta, that means looking at each child and making sure that the child’s needs are met—whether that need is food, specialized instruction, or a more challenging curriculum. “We’ve also been doing a lot of work around ensuring that what’s done in the classroom,” says Garcia, “is done in a culturally responsive and affirming way.”

Even this early in the game in Eureka, Sobilo understands that careful and consistent communication among all school staff about the nature and focus of a community school is an ongoing part of introducing and sustaining the model. At the site level, she practices what she calls “groundswell.”

“If I want something to get done at a school,” Sobilo says, “I talk with each teacher. As an administrator, I can have 60 conversations a day about all the elements of a community school. With this, I build groundswell,” which means, she says, that not only do her staff understand how the school will change, and how those changes can improve instruction, for example, but “I can slowly work on eroding nonproductive mindsets and replacing them with positive ones. Then groundswell happens.”

Sobilo and colleagues have also been busy communicating at the community level. The partners they’ve engaged in a relatively short period of time make for an impressive list: county mental health services, law enforcement, public transportation, juvenile justice, and public health, along with Two Feathers Native American Family Services, Centro del Pueblo Movimiento Indigena Migrante, a local Hmong association, and advocacy organizations for individuals who are LGBTQ+.

The district also hosts “monthly meetings of the many providers who are our partners,” says Sobilo. “They come together to discuss what the local schools need. These meetings make the schools less bound to trends and whims and political pressures. It’s all focused on these kids and these families. What’s going on right here and what the needs are.”

Sobilo welcomes the prospect of shared leadership with these numerous stakeholders. It means “more access for students to the services and supports they need. “It is messy,” she concedes. “But the work we’re doing is forerunning. It will fundamentally change education.”

Relationships

Another point in common between the community schools efforts in Anaheim and Eureka is a belief in the transformational power of relationships between staff and students.

“We put an emphasis on relationships and trust,” says Huerta. “For almost five years now, all of our staff—custodians, secretaries, teachers—have been trained in something called Capturing Kids’ Hearts, which involves “getting to know students by name, need, story. The idea is that if you can build a solid relationship with your students and build a safe environment within your four walls as a teacher, then students are going to be receptive to working with you and ready to learn—about science or history or whatever it is you teach.” From this established emphasis, Anaheim has created a fertile ground for the “whole-child” approach that is now part of its community schools model.

Sobilo agrees. Her experience in the classroom has shown her that “relationships and connections are at the heart of learning.” This doesn’t mean, she says, that teachers have to “play the same video games or talk in adolescent jargon or connect in other superficial ways.” But it does mean that teachers and school staff must genuinely “care about the person in front of them,” she says. “And when those relationships are developed, teachers can leverage them into learning.” She often quotes educational philosopher James Comer, who said, “No significant learning can occur without a significant relationship.”

Ross Green is another of Sobilo’s intellectual mentors. His directive to “Help kids solve the problems that are causing their concerning behavior …without shame, blame, or conflict” has helped to inform the direct instruction on behavior that takes place in the Alice Birney Elementary School classrooms. “Behavior,” Sobilo says, “is foundational; it’s the most important thing students have to learn.” The community school model is helping the staff in Eureka develop structures at all levels—community, school, and classroom—for teaching and reinforcing positive behavior-related skills.

To start, the school gives every student “direct instruction in self-management and regulation,” says Sobilo. This instruction “helps students learn how to structure their talk,” she says. “Most students, whether or not they have an IEP, benefit from learning what kinds of interactions with their peers contribute to classroom learning—and what kinds detract.” Each classroom also has a “break space where students can go to regulate.”

Special Education

The instruction and permission around the use of a “break space,” says Sobilo, helps every child develop an awareness of their own behavior and how it affects others in a social context. This awareness “results in a greater integration of all students in the general education setting,” she says, “especially when there are so many students with IEP goals that have to do with self-regulation.”

To make inclusive classrooms work, she says, “we then have growing levels of collaboration between general ed and special ed teachers.” This way, she says, “the classroom teacher doesn’t have to do all of it. It’s a kind of triage.”

A team of social workers from the community is now also involved, thanks in part to the community school approach. Each school is in the process of creating a wellness center, and, Sobilo says, “outside providers will come in to serve kids. Counselors, therapists, and neuro-health specialists” will provide services that target each child’s need. “We also have practitioners coming into schools talking about mental health and de-stigmatizing it, addressing issues of cyber bullying. The entire community is changing,” she says, as a result of the community schools grant.

Designated Coordinators

Like every other educational entity in the country—and perhaps the world—Anaheim’s community schools were set back by the COVID-19 pandemic. School site closures delayed many required assessments, evaluations, and Individualized Education Programs for students with disabilities. And then many students, with and without disabilities, came back to school with alarming learning gaps. Others had a difficult time adjusting to school schedules and requirements, and still others carried the trauma of living in isolation for two years, or even losing a loved one. Behavioral and mental health issues dominated the news and the classroom.

One of the resulting challenges—the need to ferret out the difference between disability and a reasonable response to trauma—creates a strong argument for community schools in general and the presence of community school coordinators in particular. “My responsibility,” says Huerta, “is to reach out to district leadership and get these folks together at a table to address these concerns and fix this system so that, for example, we’re not overclassifying students [for special education] and putting them in more restrictive environments when that’s not what they need—and that’s not even what the issue is. The issue isn’t them. It’s that we’re still going through this pandemic. Every student at every level is impacted. And the decisions we make are going to affect their future.”

The job of a coordinator, says Huerta, is to “be receptive, to know my staff, to have great relationships. That is a priority as a community school for the benefit of our students—to create a close-knit community. Whether you agree with people or get along with them or not, we’re going to talk with each other and have open communication. And we’re going to come together and solve problems. I don’t think you get that at a place that’s not a community school. Here, relationships and trust are a big deal.”

Additional Resources

Jacobson. R. (2022). Starting and sustaining community schools: Ten tips for district leaders. The Brookings Institute. https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2022/11/Starting-and-sustaining-community-schools_FINAL_1110122.pdf

Partnership for the Future of Learning. (n.d.). Financing Community Schools: A Framework for Growth and Stability. Author. https://communityschools.futureforlearning.org/finance

Now More Than Ever: Family Engagement and Student Success with Dr. Karen Mapp. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oovv-AhZ0to

Estrin, R. (2022, November). CA takes big bet on community schools. Will it pay off? KCRW. https://www.kcrw.com/news/shows/greater-la/edu-cars-thanksgiving/community-schools-ca

Supporting Students’ Social-emotional and Mental Health Needs

Many students struggle with mental health challenges, and these challenges impact their full participation in learning. To remove these barriers, the California SUMS initiative is helping schools implement high-quality student supports that integrate academics, positive behavior, and social-emotional health right in the classroom.

SUMS, which stands for Scale-Up MTSS (Multi-tiered System of Support) Statewide, provides a process through which local education agencies (LEAs: school districts, charter schools, and county offices of education) assess their strengths, coordinate their student supports, and align their efforts with state priorities.

The support is needed more than ever as students deal with mental health challenges that were exacerbated by the pandemic.

“COVID messed us up,” says Alexander Jauregui, principal of Kermit McKenzie Intermediate School in the city of Guadalupe, in Santa Barbara County. “Having kids at home for a year and a half didn’t just stop their forward progress academically,” he says, “it metastasized other issues that we weren’t necessarily aware of or prepared for.”

Background

SUMS began in 2016 with a grant awarded to the Orange County Department of Education and the Butte County Office of Education. It offers professional learning opportunities for school sites, LEAs, and coaches through the online CA MTSS Pathway Certification for Schools. It also helps schools align learning and mental health activities to the CA MTSS Framework, and trains educators in using essential concepts, such as Universal Design for Learning (UDL), trauma-informed practices, and culturally and linguistically relevant and responsive teaching practices. Through the CA MTSS Framework, SUMS helps schools organize programs and initiatives to better meet the academic, behavioral, and social-emotional needs of students.

Two features are fundamental to the initiative: the use of a whole-systems lens to identify existing and unique improvement opportunities and a focus on equity and inclusion—while avoiding assigning labels to children.

Support from SUMS has given Kermit McKenzie Intermediate School the resources to address the needs of every child. “A big focus is the academic piece because our kids are so far behind,” says Jauregui. “We’re trying to support our teachers in identifying the needs of each and every student that comes through the doors.”

In addition to the professional learning opportunities offered through the MTSS online course, Jauregui says the grant has helped offset some of the costs of bringing substitutes in so teachers can take time to collaborate and craft lessons that reach each student. This builds relationships among the teachers, relationships that are then modeled to students. If teachers don’t have good relationships, he says, then students will notice, “and they are not going to buy into what you are trying to sell. The relationship among adults is a big priority; and once that’s established, it runs like a well-oiled machine.”

Making Connections

Jauregui says that the process has helped staff see the connections between efforts that could be viewed as disparate. Professional Learning Communities, collaboration opportunities, and academic concerns connect to Response to Intervention (RTI), which in turn connects to supporting social-emotional needs. “Once our teachers were able to see that, it’s like, ‘Oh, wow. We’re not doing something extra.’”

Addressing the social and emotional needs of students is an integral part of the California Department of Education’s “whole child” approach. When certain basic needs are not met, students have trouble learning. Social and emotional learning (SEL) is associated with significant improvements in students’ academic performance and attitudes toward school. Research shows that students who receive SEL instruction have more positive attitudes about school and improved scores on standardized achievement tests, compared with students who do not receive SEL instruction.

 
We have very clear expectations, students are getting the attention and focus they need, and they’re made to feel like it’s about growth and learning.”
 

Erin Kreutzer, MTSS coordinator at Palm Vista Elementary School in Twentynine Palms, understands the concerns Jauregui’s staff had expressed. She also was skeptical about SUMS when her school became involved as one of the initiative’s pilot sites in 2016. “I pushed back,” she said. “I thought ‘We’re already doing all these things, and it just sounds like extra work to me.’ But I can’t tell you how different our school is from the days we started with it.”

The SUMS initiative supports Palm Vista in several ways, one important way being the professional development opportunities the grant provides. These opportunities have become especially critical due to high rates of teacher turnover.

The majority of the staff now participate in the certification program available online through SUMS. They receive training on trauma-informed practices and Universal Design for Learning
(UDL) with a focus on removing barriers to learning.

Once a school becomes organized and consistent, which is the goal of SUMS, students have more opportunities to be engaged and motivated. The SUMS initiative has helped Palm Vista do just that. “The MTSS process has really helped us tighten up our Tier 1 [school-wide] practices,” Kreutzer says. “Through it, we are able to better identify the students that need additional support, have more structure in place, and intervene when students need it.”

Building a Learning Center

By helping the rest of the school operate smoothly, SUMS has allowed Palm Vista to turn its attention to the school’s learning center—a skills-focused room for small group and individual student work. The learning center provides an inclusive environment where students with IEPs can work alongside those without an IEP but with similar needs. Staff work with the students to get to know them and remove barriers to learning for each of them.

Kreutzer says that the learning center has a much smaller staff-to-student ratio than in a regular classroom, “so we’re really able to target what Johnny needs versus Susie sitting next to him. They might be reading at the same skill level, but one needs a little more support with, say, phonics, and the other needs visual cues a little more. We’re able to address those because we keep the groups intentionally smaller.”

The learning center is physically the same size as the other classrooms in the school, and it can accommodate up to four small groups at a time as well as those who are working one-to-one. It also serves as a separate space for conducting assessments for students with 504 plans or Individualized Education Programs (IEPs).

Behavioral problems are very low in the learning center, Kreutzer says, “because we have very clear expectations, students are getting the attention and focus they need, and they’re made to feel like it’s about growth and learning.”

The SUMS grant has helped Palm Vista equip the learning center with resources to accommodate all learning styles. The center also provides a location for Check-In/Check-Out (CICO) interactions4 related to Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS). CICO interventions are often used as a Tier 2 intervention5 to provide students with consistent, scheduled adult attention each day. Students regularly review their goals and progress with staff, which strengthens the relationship between student and staff.

The students have become very comfortable with the learning center and will go there when they need a break. For some students with significant or low-incidence disabilities, it also serves as a midway point for transition into general education. Through a gradual approach, Kreutzer says “every year we’re improving how much we’re able to bring those students into the general ed classrooms to be with their peers for learning.”

Part of being trauma-informed is establishing consistency in the classroom so students know, as Kreutzer says, “what’s coming and when it’s coming.” This clarity and consistency, and the building of relationships, have made a difference at Palm Vista.

Reaching Out, Being Inclusive

Part of Palm Vista’s approach to school improvement involves students who might previously have been characterized as “difficult.” The school trains and deploys them as mentors to other students, including those with disabilities. “It’s allowed us to be even more inclusive,” says Kreutzer.

“It empowers them and gives them some sense of control and responsibility. And we are telling them that we believe in them and trust them,” which in turn helps those acting as mentors to start to believe in themselves.

With the help of SUMS, Palm Vista now has an SEL counselor on campus, which has also strengthened partnerships with outside agencies as they work together to serve students.

At Kermit McKenzie, Jauregui says, “we have our outreach consultant who will come out and take the kids around for a walk and just give them that opportunity to vent and let it out. She has been a great resource,” he says. Staff also know that parent partnerships are important, so they schedule parent-teacher conferences “anytime during the day, all the way up till seven o’clock at night.”

These schools are modeling an effective formula: SUMS support + good people working hard = better outcomes. “I know this team will go to the ends of the earth for these students,” says Jauregui. “This MTSS grant is going to take us to the next level and really ensure that our kids are ready to leave us and go into the next chapter.”

The SUMS initiative is helping schools create better learning environments to address the social-emotional needs of all students.

Addressing the Mental Health Crisis: Peer-to-Peer Support

The numbers are staggering. Suicide death rates among youth and young adults aged 10–24 increased 47.1 percent in the United States during the 18 years before the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, rates of suicide, anxiety, and depression among young people have only gotten worse. California has not been immune. According to EdSource, “one-third of California adolescents experienced serious psychological distress between 2019 and 2021, including a 20 percent increase in adolescent suicides.”

The state is taking the crisis seriously. Governor Gavin Newsom has invested $4.4 billion in the Children and Youth Behavioral Health Initiative, which will expand and coordinate current efforts to support and improve the mental health of children and youth, along with a total of $17.5 billion to develop and strengthen community schools, which are designed to provide, among other things, wrap-around mental health services and to support for the “whole child.” More specifically to help address this mental health crisis, there is increased attention to and investment in peer-to-peer support in schools.

Peer-to-Peer Support

Organized peer-to-peer support has been around since the 1930s, but it took shape as a concerted approach to supporting youth in schools in the 1970s with what was then called peer counseling. Over the decades, the kind of training peer counselors need and the scope of the support they can provide have been studied and refined. From the beginning, however, educators and clinicians knew that some form of guided peer support could expand the services of a professional counseling staff that was often stretched thin. More importantly, this approach held out the hope of reaching students who would not otherwise receive important support—or even be reachable.

The California Children’s Trust has registered an enthusiastic endorsement of peer-to-peer support, reassuring those not familiar with this kind of interaction that “workers do not duplicate or replace the roles of therapists, case managers, or other members of a treatment team.” But “by sharing their own lived experience and practical guidance, [peer counselors] do offer a level of acceptance, understanding, and validation not found in many other professional relationships.”

The practice—often referred to as “P2P”—is gaining traction in the state, through formal legislation, committed educators, and passionate students.

Senate Bill 803, authored by State Senator Jim Beal, has both endorsed and given financial footing to P2P in recent California legislation that “establishes statewide training standards for peer support specialists.” The
bill also requires California’s Department of Health Care Services to use Medi-Cal money to pay these specialists.

 
Benefits of Peer-to-Peer Support
  • Increased self-esteem and confidence
  • Increased sense of control and ability to bring about desired changes
  • Raised empowerment scores
  • Increased sense that treatment is responsive and inclusive of needs
  • Increased sense of hope and inspiration
  • Increased empathy and acceptance
  • Decreased psychotic symptoms
  • Increased engagement in self-care and wellness
  • Reduced hospital stay and longer community tenure
  • Increased social support and social functioning
  • Decreased substance use and depression

Adapted from https://www.samhsa.gov/sites/default/files/programs_campaigns/brss_tacs/peer-support-2017.pdf

 

This form of peer support involves young adults “who draw on lived experience with mental illness and/or substance use disorder and recovery, bolstered by specialized training” and who deliver “valuable support services in a mental health and/or substance use setting.”

Currently, only individuals 18 years of age and older can undergo the specified training required to become a peer support specialist and then receive remuneration for their services. The California Children’s Trust calls this legislation an important first step and a “good learning lab for how to expand P2P into younger populations.”

Sheila Balk has not been waiting around for this expansion. For more than two decades, Balk has run a peer counseling program at Pomona High School. While her students do not get paid for their services, they do receive A–G credit in “UC-approved classes,” says Balk. She is quick to tell interested students, however, that being a peer counselor “is not walking around with a clipboard talking to your friends.” And not everyone who applies gets into her peer counseling classes. Each student must be recommended for the course by a teacher and then undergo an extensive interview process before being accepted.

“A lot of kids don’t want to work this hard,” says Balk, referring to what is required in the courses. Those who do, however, do not reflect any particular type of student, she says. “If you’re interested in signing up, and we see possibility and potential during the interview process, then we’re scooping you up.”

Once accepted into the course, students learn about and practice active listening, paraphrasing and summarizing, appropriate questioning techniques, validation statements, understanding and using nonverbal cues, solving problems, managing stress, and resolving conflicts. They also learn the basic principles of psychology.

Perhaps most importantly, though, they “research, understand, and present the parameters of confidentiality and ‘duty to inform’,” according to the course outline. At the end of their course of study, says Balk, “they have to sign a peer counseling code of ethics,” one that is based on the code of the American Counseling Association.

The promise of confidentiality is sacrosanct—except when the duty to inform takes precedence—for example, if there is danger of harm to the student-client.

Balk is used to addressing the concerns that students naturally have about being labeled a “snitch” when they are obligated to fulfill their duty to inform. “But I always ask my students, ‘Would you rather have a mad friend
or a dead friend? Your mad friend can probably get over it. Your dead friend can’t.’”

What students learn in her class and in their work as peer counselors represent, in Balk’s opinion, skills that may serve them better throughout their lives than “that fourth math class” they might have taken instead. The first skill that Balk teaches is how to listen—along with how to ask open-ended questions, paraphrase, avoid judgment, and develop and use a vocabulary for expressing emotions beyond “mad, sad, and glad.”

Once students fulfill the course’s requirements and are approved to become peer counselors, they are assigned hours at the school’s wellness center, where they support any student who walks in looking for guidance or a sympathetic ear. Each peer counselor also carries a personal caseload.

Oftentimes, says Balk, students are having problems with a romantic relationship. These problems can interfere with their ability to concentrate and learn. “They just want somebody to talk to,” says Balk, “but I don’t necessarily need to speak with them. Their peers can probably give better support.”

But when issues escalate—when there’s any indication of self-harm, abuse, or thoughts of suicide—Balk is immediately informed and the appropriately trained counseling and/or clinical staff is summoned.

Balk’s program has lasted for more than two decades because students like it—and because it reflects what the research shows: peers can provide helpful support and guidance to each other, and many students prefer to talk about sensitive topics with their classmates. In addition, says Balk, students “don’t typically carry that aura of authority, which is a turn-off for many kids.”

Students with disabilities, says Balk, “are very good peer counselors because they get it,” she says. They understand the importance of listening and simply being present to the pain or heartbreak of another, without needing to jump into an immediate opinion or find a fix. “When they come in [to the wellness center], they can drop everything and be themselves. They’re not a label. They’re not a sped kid in here. They’re just Jose, or Samantha, or whatever.” People fear that some kids might “slip through the cracks,” she says. “Peer counseling is like the sand that fills the cracks. Peer counselors make sure that nobody slips through.”

Balk doesn’t see herself as a researcher, and she’s too busy teaching and helping students to have time to collect rigorous data samples. But she tells story after story about the “miracles that have happened” through her program. She heard recently from one student who had been a “hard core drug addict” in high school and who contacted her to let her know he was “clean and sober and going to UCLA,” she says. “I don’t need any more data than that.”

Peer-to-peer support has become a movement in California. Two young adults in the state, Sriya Chilla and Nghia Do, began playing a key role in this surge while they were in high school. Their stories follow.

Peer-to-Peer Support: Returning Power to Youth

Sriya Chilla, First-Year Student at UCLA and Co-Founder of the Mind-2-Mind Initiative

Hundreds of sticky notes with messages like “It will get better” used to engulf my high school campus in May—National Mental Health Month. Yet when a friend confided in me about her struggle with depression during that same month two years ago, I was at a loss for words. Reciting the generic messages from the sticky notes seemed vague and insincere. In the rush of finding the right thing to say, it struck me that I and many of my peers didn’t actually know how to provide support to someone in distress.

Wanting to take action, I partnered up with Nghia Do, a student who saw the same problem in his school 90 miles away. We met through the Youth Advisory Board of the California Coalition for Youth (CCY), and we clicked instantly. We were constantly conceptualizing new ideas together in board meetings, which soon transitioned to phone calls to continue our conversations after meetings. We talked about our personal struggles with mental wellness and sought to do something about the issue we knew millions of youth also struggled with.

We immediately agreed that, at each of our schools, awareness was not the problem. Students generally know what mental health is and when we need help. The problem is that effective help doesn’t exist on most school campuses, especially in underserved communities.

Some of my friends were seeing therapists outside of school, but that kind of resource is not available to everyone. Therapy is expensive. Those without health insurance have a difficult time accessing these services. On top of that, many of my friends’ parents don’t believe that mental health is an issue because of a cultural stigma. Again, reaching out for help was difficult.

Sriya Chilla

We envisioned one solution – mental healthcare offered directly on campuses through youth-to-youth conversations. We pictured a program where a student struggling with social anxiety, for example – something that’s not too uncommon right now – can walk into a designated room on their campus. Inside the room would be several peer counselors and other students from the same school who have undergone rigorous training in crisis intervention and conflict mediation. The struggling student can talk to any of the counselors in a confidential conversation. Peer counselors would suggest relevant resources and healthy coping methods to help the student recover over time. In addition, counselors could serve as a bridge for students to become comfortable talking to their school psychologist and other professional staff.

To successfully address the full range of mental health challenges that young people face, it’s also important to provide prevention-based programs, which makes peer-to-peer support so effective. Students can come into these designated rooms for what they see as minor difficulties, just to talk things out.

Most mental health issues don’t appear at full severity at the high school age. At the same time, high school is when youth experience challenges in their development. In many cases, peer-to-peer services can tackle issues before they become critical—and stop the cycle of chasing the problem after the fact, especially for those who have or are at risk of developing emotional or behavioral disabilities.

Given the mountain of evidence and our determination to return the power to youth, Nghia and I committed ourselves to establishing peer-to-peer support programs in high schools across California.

With the help of our mentor Jevon Wilkes, the executive director of CCY, Nghia and I connected with experts, from county providers to nonprofit directors, who invited us to promote our idea at several conferences. We met many like-minded people who were already working in the peer-to-peer space. One of them was Kelly Davis, a specialist from Mental Health America. We worked with her on a research paper about the effectiveness of peer-to-peer support in an effort to encourage more investment in these programs. We had conversations with other high school students, who provided their support and were critical in helping us evolve our idea. We also met Ken Berrick, Chris Stoner-Mertz, and Alex Briscoe, who dedicated their time to helping us formulate the strategy for our peer-to-peer proposal. Through our various connections, the fragmented ideas that we hatched on the phone at 2 a.m. soon led to collaborations with government agencies, including the California Department of Education and Department of Health Care Services.

After talking to individual county representatives and statewide government officials, we realized that both county and state officials needed to be on board to ensure that peer-to-peer programs were successfully established. We began to assume a simultaneous bottom-up and top-down approach. We wrote proposals outlining our program and testified before the California State Assembly, while also working to establish peer-to-peer within our own lives and communities.

I began to build experiences around peer-to-peer support with CCY’s California Youth Crisis Line, both as a crisis counselor and a youth reaching out for help. In my tough moments, it was helpful that the person on the other end of the phone had been in my shoes. Confronting my difficulties felt less daunting. Peer-to-peer gave me a friend when I didn’t feel comfortable talking to anyone else. And as a crisis counselor working with other teenagers my age, I felt more trust in our shared experiences and solidarity. When given the opportunity, we as youth have always been competent and trustworthy enough to talk about the issues affecting our generation.

Our efforts to offer youth the opportunity to show their potential finally coalesced into funding—$10 million in the Governor’s Approved 2022-23 State Budget to establish peer-to-peer mental health programs in high schools across California. We also advocated as part of the California Children’s Trust (CCT) to make peer-to-peer one of the 14 billable expenses under the Children and Youth Behavioral Health Initiative of $4.4 billion.

Despite this success, the fight continues for more youth mental health resources directly on school campuses and for expanding beyond health insurance barriers. Years before COVID-19 shut down the world, the mental health pandemic had already taken root in our generation. Testimony from any teenager will paint a vivid picture behind the statistics we hear so often about the effects of the pandemic. However, most of the response to the mental health crisis is focused on awareness when it should be redirected towards allowing youth to design the systems of care that will ultimately serve them. The generational gap between the professionals in the field and youth can be effectively bridged with peer-to-peer programs.

I will continue to use my own voice to empower youth and ensure that no student is at a loss for words or peer support, as I was two years ago when my friend expressed her struggle with depression.

I ask you to join me in this movement. Whether you’re an elected official, service provider, teacher, parent, or teenager yourself, it’s our collective responsibility to set up the next generation with the resources they need to live happy and healthy lives.

Peer-to-Peer Support: Imagining a New Way

Nghia Do, First-Year Student, Stanford University

Growing up in a household with family members who were mentally ill, I experienced first-hand the struggles and the lack of resources available to individuals in need. My father and uncles had schizophrenia, and their world was filled with delusions and paranoia that left me feeling invisible and alone. Despite my mother’s best efforts, moving to the United States did not erase the trauma, and I found myself struggling with depression and anxiety.

It was not until I met Mrs. Ruiz, a committed counselor who listened and supported me, that I began to feel heard and seen. She encouraged me to take a psychology course at a nearby community college, and from there I discovered my passion for mental health. With each page of my psychology book, I felt a rush of exhilaration and a desire to use my newfound knowledge to help others.

That passion led me to start a mental health organization and advocate for more resources and support for individuals struggling with mental health issues. One outcome was $10 million for peer-to-peer mental health programs in California’s Governor’s Budget of 2022–2023.

Nghia Do

Preventing the Fire

The lack of access to mental health resources and the shortcomings of the traditional medical model have left many individuals feeling isolated and invisible, much as I did in high school. Peer-to-peer programs offer a unique level of support and understanding from individuals who have personally experienced mental health challenges. They can help break down the stigma surrounding mental health issues.

In the past few years, peer-to-peer (P2P) mental health support programs have been gaining traction in California due to their proven effectiveness in addressing mental health challenges faced by individuals, particularly youth. Formal peer support programs have been around for more than 80 years and have consistently shown positive results. There are state and national models that have demonstrated efficacy and could be scaled to reach a broader audience.

Even before the pandemic, traditional medical care was insufficient in addressing young people’s mental health needs. The post-pandemic mental health crisis requires a re-imagining of how the youth are reached and supported to heal and thrive. P2P programs in schools provide a multi-benefit solution to the youth mental health crisis. These programs address the broken medical model, focus on prevention, enable culturally responsive support, mitigate the provider shortage, and offer a workforce development pipeline for youth.

Most youth mental illnesses tend to manifest themselves during the teenage years, typically between the ages of 13 and 18. In contrast, most adults only use mental health services as a “last resort” rather than seeking prevention methods early. This reflects a gap in the system of care — a tendency to wait until the wildfire consumes the whole forest before treating the fire.

Why not prevent the fire in the first place?

Imagining a New Way

With peer-to-peer programs, schools can start providing culturally relevant and equitable care using their most valuable resource, leaders who understand youth the most—other youth from the same school. Kids understand kids better than anyone else, and they are more likely to turn to their friends for emotional support than to adults.

There’s a tendency for systems of care to see youth as the problem but never the solution, which is a fatal mistake. In my experience, the problems get worse at these schools, as they rely heavily on the supply of social workers (that the state often does not have in sufficient numbers) rather than on more innovative alternatives.

Another reason why schools need to deeply consider peer-to-peer mental health programs is the prospect of building a future workforce for youth mental health. When schools establish a formal way for students to access mental health care via their peers, this opportunity opens up new channels for strengthening the mental health workforce, not only for the school but for the state.

Imagine a student who is passionate about psychology and genuinely gets excited about helping others. The Therapist, as their friends may refer to them, received this incredible opportunity to get a head start in his career. Soon enough, he starts to recruit other students with similar interests to build upon the structure of peer-to-peer programs in schools. Then these students one day may become the next generation of school psychologists, mental health workers, and social workers that can come back and work for schools. It’s an amazing positive feedback loop.

Expanding Peer-to-Peer Support

Senate Bill 803, which was signed into law in 2020 (and began in July 2022), will be an excellent learning lab for how to expand P2P into younger populations. It is essential to challenge concerns that P2P is only appropriate for ages 18 and over and advocate for expansion programs that reach younger groups—who are already informally practicing peer support to address their unique mental health needs.

New financing opportunities in both health and education sectors offer promise to scale and sustain P2P programs and recruit the professional adult allies required to support them. With the proven effectiveness of P2P programs and the persistent lack of mental health support among students, the need to expand and improve access to these programs in California cannot be overstated. We must continue to invest in P2P mental health support programs to ensure that individuals, particularly youth, have the resources and support they need to lead healthy and fulfilling lives.

Additional Resources

McCarthy, C. (2022). The Mental Health Crisis Among Children and Teens: How Parents Can Help. Harvard Health. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/the-mental-health-crisis-among-children-and-teens-how-parents-can-help-202203082700

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021). Youth Risk Behavior Survey: Data Summary and Trends Report 2011–2021. Author. https://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/data/yrbs/pdf/YRBS_Data-Summary-Trends_Report2023_508.pdf

National Institute of Mental Health. (2023). Child and Adolescent Mental Health. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/child-and-adolescent-mental-health

College for All: The Redwood SEED Scholars Program

Employment outcomes for individuals with intellectual disabilities are often dismal. A study commissioned by the Special Olympics in 2013 showed that more than half are unemployed. Of those who are employed, only 26 percent have full-time jobs, and only a third of those receive health insurance through their employer. A 2022 study from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics shows virtually no change in those numbers.

Not surprisingly, the Special Olympics study concludes, “The employment outlook for adults with ID [intellectual disabilities] will continue to be bleak until new ways are found to meaningfully incorporate this population into the labor force.” The Redwood SEED Scholars Program promises to be one of those new ways.

Scholars and Mentors in the Redwood SEED Scholars Program enjoying a meal together.

The Redwood SEED Scholars Program—Supported Education to Elevate Diversity—at the University of California-Davis, is designed to give students with intellectual disabilities the opportunity to attend college, live on campus, and learn in a full-time, four-year, academic, non-degree experience.

“If there’s no degree after four years of study, what’s the point?” some might ask. Conclusive data answer this question. When given the opportunity to learn and mature alongside their typically developing peers, individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities learn much of what their dorm-mates learn: how to study, develop friendships, live independently, and advocate for themselves. And according to PACER’s National Parent Center on Transition and Employment, after college, these young adults are employed “at significantly higher rates with higher average wages” than their peers who did not attend college—degree or no degree. So while the Redwood SEED Scholars program does not offer a degree, it positions students to find competitive, integrated employment after they’ve finished school.

During their four years of college, Redwood SEED Scholars are supported by peer Mentors in all aspects of campus life—academics, social inclusion, health and wellness, residential living, internships, and employment. What follows are stories written by two Scholars and two Mentors who tell of their experiences in the program and the resulting benefits of inclusion and belonging for everyone involved.

Additional Resources

 

On Being a Redwood SEED Scholar

Karis Jewel Chun, Student, UC Davis

I heard about the SEED Scholars program from my teacher/mentor. Her name is Mrs. Kathi McNair. She is the one who found the program and told me about it. Mrs. NcNair always looks out for good experiences for me, but this was the best of all! Even before coming to Davis, I dreamed of attending college and living on campus. When I was accepted into SEED, that was the moment that my dream came true.

How I Got Ready

One of the skills I have is independence and I am self-taught. I have a highly creative mind. I taught myself how to cook food, and I learn how to draw by watching YouTube. One of my favorite things to cook is noodles. It is creative cooking. For example, my favorite combo is lentil soup with buckwheat noodles or Korean spicy ramen with steak. My parents are amazed at my creativity because I invented these dishes! I also add veggies like tomatoes, bell peppers, mushrooms, onions, and eggs in them.

I also taught myself how to draw. I started off with paper and pencils, and now I draw on my iPad. I have created so many characters. I have three that are my favorite: Luna the wolf, Casey the element dragon, and Moona the hybrid of a lion, an owl, and a rabbit. I have made whole worlds for them, and they are the heroes of their own worlds. Luna is a special character because she is my original character.

Drawing is an outlet for me in any mood I’m in. One of my favorite things to draw is ponies. These are some of my drawings, a drawing of me and my favorite characters in the ponies version:

The second skill is leadership/self-advocate. Self-advocacy is when you stand up for yourself. In 2018, I was selected as California Youth Leadership (YLF) representative for students with disabilities. After an interview and a review of my letters of recommendation, I was selected! YLF paid for all my expenses, and I got to stay at Cal State Sacramento for five days. There, I got to learn how to be a good leader to others and learn about the history of disability—which is one example of self-advocacy.

When I was in high school, there was a bus driver. She was very mean to me and my friend on the bus. My friend was in a power wheelchair. The driver wanted to leave the bus stop, but my friend was in a wheelchair, so he was a little late getting out of class. The bus driver was complaining to me that my friend was late. The bus driver was saying mean things about my friend behind his back and to his face. That is when self-advocating kicked in! I stood up for my friend. So the bus driver got so upset at me, and she started to say bad things about me to my home teacher. But my teacher sided with me and my friend in a wheelchair. From then, my relationship with the bus driver was awkward. But the support of my parents and mentor Mrs. McNair taught me to be a kind person.

At the end of the school year, I wanted to be a kind person, so I gave the bus driver a small gift. That year, I learned to be kind to those who hurt me. I made a quote from me: “Be kind to those who hurt you, because they may be hurting much more” (Karis Chun).

What the Experience Is Like

As I said before, I always wanted a college experience. I don’t know how, but I still wanted it. So when I got accepted into SEED, that was the moment that my dream became a reality. One valuable experience was learning how to use transportation. I can never drive a car, so this is an important skill for me. I learned how to go home during the winter break, traveling from Sacramento Airport to Ontario Airport. For the first time in my life, I got on a plane with another SEED friend and without my parent’s supervision. I also learn how to take Uber. Last Sunday, I didn’t have a ride to the church because my usual mentor couldn’t take me. So my SEED friend and I took a Uber to the church.

Also, during a long three-day weekend, another SEED friend and I took a train to her parent’s house in Oakland. When I was in sixth grade, I learned how to ride a bike, but I didn’t use my bike much until I came to UC Davis. Now I ride my bike everywhere on campus: to my classes and work.

Did I tell you? I take courses and I have a job through this program. I take three SEED classes and one real UC Davis class from the university professors. My favorite classes were the creative writing class and the Disability Medicine class from the winter and spring quarter.

I am proud to work at the university library and the vet clinic, and also I earn money! I like my bosses too! I make my own spending money now and I do not rely on my parents! Some of the classes I take, like math and literacy, will help me in the real world with the daily task. The jobs help me get ready for what to expect in the real workplace.

Finally, I really value the experience. I have learned how to adapt to living with different kinds of people in the dorm. I must say, relationships are sometimes challenging, but that is how I grow the most. I am proud that I am taking advantage of all that this program has to offer. It’s like all doors are open to me. I’m still in the process of exploring all the opportunities SEED has. This is helping me to live my dream. I am living my life to the fullest!

How I See the Future

In the future. I want to live in an apartment with a roommate and have a full-time job. Also, I still want to be involved with the SEED program somehow after I graduate. I received so much, so I want to give back. My advice for newcomers is for them to come to the SEED with or without a plan. You will be supported all the way until graduation!

On Being a Mentor in the Redwood SEED Scholars Program

Sophia Haque, Student, UC Davis

One of my best friends is Mia. Her twin brother Landin has Down Syndrome. I grew up with Mia alongside Landin and experienced firsthand how Landin’s mom, Luna, enabled him to be the best version of himself, a regular part of my life. They had a very active and adventurous upbringing. Luna ensured that Landin was seen for who he truly is: Someone who is capable, caring, funny, and deserving. It is so vital to have someone in your life who encourages you to step out of your comfort zone and try new things—whether you have a disability or not. Exploring the outdoors and experiencing the world around us was something we did every time I went over to their house. We would paint, go to the park, go hiking, go to the beach, bake, garden, do yoga, learn how to cook, have tea, make YouTube videos, do crafts, play games—the list could go on forever. Luna has always pushed us to be the best versions of ourselves.

I remember being astounded when she told me how she thought parents of individuals with disabilities could inhibit their child’s growth, disabling them further. Looking back, Luna was likely referring to the tendency of some parents of individuals with disabilities to coddle or overprotect their children, leading to a lack of opportunities for growth and development. This can lead to individuals with disabilities being seen as helpless or incapable and can limit their personal and social growth. Additionally, it can lead to a lack of inclusion in social and recreational activities, which can further isolate individuals with disabilities from their peers.

I have come to believe that people tend to box out individuals with intellectual disabilities, whether because they are uncomfortable or ignorant or out of an attempt to “protect” them. Luna’s approach to parenting, on the other hand, emphasized inclusion, independence, and empowerment, which allowed Landin to flourish and become the best version of himself. When a parent believes in you and encourages you, this kind of support can be invaluable in helping children grow and develop into confident, capable adults—just like Landin, Mia, and me.

For me, it was bizarre to imagine that someone could be treated differently due to their disability, especially after growing up in such close proximity to Landin, who was no different from us in our eyes. My relationships with Mia, Landin, and Luna made it easy for me to join the Redwood SEED Scholars Program. I was already comfortable with all different kinds of people and aware of some issues regarding inclusivity and lack of understanding when it comes to individuals with disabilities.

Entering the Program

In my freshman year of college, I joined the Tennis Club at UC Davis, which is where I met Shane, one of the original mentors of the SEED program. After becoming closer friends with Shane and going to some SEED program events, such as float-making for the Picnic Day parade, I knew it was time to join SEED officially. I applied online and then had an interview with Beth Foraker, the program coordinator. We talked about what it meant to be an outstanding mentor: Having patience, being flexible, providing positive reinforcement, actively listening, offering encouragement and independence, promoting inclusion, and more. I think Beth saw me as an ideal mentor not because I was perfect right off the bat but because she saw I was capable of learning and adapting—and I had grown up with Landin.

It is so vital to have someone in your life who encourages you to step out of your comfort zone and try new things—whether you have a disability or not.

There is no formula detailing how to be a good mentor. Every mentor is different, and every Scholar is different. But there are some guidelines. One is the importance of remembering that individuals with cognitive disabilities are unique individuals, just like everyone else, and we form meaningful relationships with them the same way we form meaningful relationships with anyone else—we focus on shared interests, humor, and other commonalities.

Focusing on similarities rather than differences can help break down barriers and promote inclusion among all groups of people. It can also help challenge preconceived notions or stereotypes that people may have, in this case, about individuals with intellectual disabilities. By fostering connections and relationships based on shared interests and values, we can help create a more inclusive and accepting society for everyone. We are all so much more alike than we are different. It’s important to recognize and celebrate that.

Through my experience as a SEED Scholar mentor, I have developed a deeper understanding of the rights and the potential of individuals with cognitive disabilities. One thing that has struck me through this experience is how the label “intellectual disability” inaccurately and unfairly tags these individuals with a deficit. I have come to see that this label does not define their potential. It is a societal construct that often leads to discrimination and exclusion. Working with the Scholars has taught me so much about the value of every person and the importance of inclusivity. I have learned that these individuals have unique talents, perspectives, and gifts to offer. The program has also taught me about resilience, determination, and joy. Despite facing numerous challenges, the Scholars approach life with a positive attitude and a fierce determination to succeed.

Overall, my experience with Beth and the program has been transformative. I have gained a deeper understanding of the strengths and potential of individuals with disabilities, and I have been inspired by their resilience and determination. I see them as offering so much to society, and I am grateful for the opportunity to learn from and work alongside them.

Building Friendships

In our program, the Scholars are considered our friends. We all—Scholars and mentors—attend school at UC Davis, and we are similar in age. I was initially hesitant about how to navigate the waters between being friends with the Scholars while also being a good mentor, but I have come to learn that it’s about being present, listening actively, and providing support in a way that is tailored to their unique needs and abilities, which is something I find is missing in many friendships.

Gaining Independence

Another goal of the program is to recognize the value of providing individuals with disabilities the opportunity to develop skills and independence and to empower them to take on new challenges and experiences. By showing someone how to do something instead of simply doing it for them, we are providing them with the tools and confidence they need to become more self-sufficient and capable.

Beth gave the analogy of putting on a bandage for someone in need versus showing them how to put their own bandage on so that they could do it by themselves in times of need. For example, it is common for students to get locked out of their dorms, whether they’re Scholars or not. Typically, the first time it happens, the Scholars reach out to everyone on Slack [a messaging app, often used in businesses to connect people to the information they need]. We discuss whether their roommates are there and can let them in and whether or not they need a replacement key from the school’s service center. Now the Scholars are able to help one another to solve this issue.

As a mentor in the Redwood SEED Scholars Program, I have seen firsthand the impact that providing opportunities and experiences can have on individuals with intellectual disabilities. It’s truly amazing to see them flourish and gain confidence as they learn new skills and take on new challenges.

Davis is notoriously known for being a bike town. Many of the Scholars have never ridden bikes before, and coming here to UC Davis is their first opportunity to try. It can be frightening at first, especially when there are so many students navigating the paths. Another mentor shared an experience of how a Scholar named Sophie fell off her bike and scraped her knee. She was super distressed, and the mentor who was there needed some extra support in dealing with the situation and called Beth for backup.

Beth was able to give more perspective to the situation. They talked about how this was not a life-threatening scrape and encouraged Sophie to wash her scrape and put a bandage on—then get back up and moving. Recently, Sophie casually brought up how she fell off her bike again. I asked if she was OK, and she said she was fine, that she was able to get up on her own and head back to the dorms. It was not as big a deal as it first was, and Sophie was proud that she could handle such a situation on her own.

Another time that sticks out to me was when I was working with a SEED Scholar named Kai at the library. We were scanning books into the online database and were getting too sidetracked talking. I tried to get us back on track and more focused, but Kai expressed that he was not a kid anymore.

I was surprised because I wasn’t insinuating that he was acting childish, but clearly, people in the past have made him feel that way. I told him that he can say whatever he wants, but, as an adult we learn that there are certain times and places where we can say certain things but not others—and how at work we need to be more serious and focused. I ended up having to stop responding to some of his questions as we were too off-topic.

He ended up saying, “OK, Miss Grinch Lady.” I gasped and laughed and responded. “Ok, Mr. Man Who Can’t Take No For An Answer.” He was similarly shocked. But we laughed and moved on—and are continuously working on finding a balance between working hard and still having fun.

Mutual Learning

I struggle with anxiety—and the unknowns. What was I supposed to do in all of the possible situations that could happen? Working with the SEED Scholars program, I have learned that you cannot be prepared for every scenario, and things do not always go to plan. This is something I found I have in common with many of the Scholars within the program. We are working on it together, and sometimes I think they don’t realize how much of a positive influence they have been on my life.

For example, the first time I led an event for the Scholars was for the Freshman Run at a football game. (The Freshmen Run is a UC Davis tradition where all the freshmen run across the field before the start of the first football game of the season.) About 17 SEED Scholars joined, and I was extremely nervous. I had never done something like this before. Going to the football games was mostly foreign, and leading a group was something I still felt uncomfortable with. We had all gotten our tickets in advance and made our way from the dorms to the stadium. It felt like this ginormous task.

Some of the Scholars got situated in the grass seating area while the rest of us prepared to do the run. We all got our free t-shirts, and I told them that I would meet them at the end of the field. When the run was over, everyone returned to us except two girls. I went into a panic. I told everyone that I would find them and immediately started to cry as I walked away.

I asked a security guard to help me, and we were able to find them within 10 minutes. I gave them a huge hug, but to my surprise, they were not even phased. After the run they had just sat down in the bleachers and began watching the game. They were shocked that I had been worried at all. They did not even feel lost to begin with. I had worked myself up over this small mishap, but ultimately it is something I will never forget, as I learned a lot—learned to be more easygoing and more adventurous in seeking out activities at school. And I became more willing to accept the uncertainties that come with life and its everyday events.

Sharing Life

I had a sister Hannah, who passed away at the age of six years old. I never had the privilege to know her, as she passed away before I was born. As a result, I do not grieve nearly as often or as strongly as my mom does. However, seeing the significance of a loss like this on my mom has affected me tremendously. Birthdays continue to pass; death days continue to approach, and life moves on. Locations and objects are haunted by bitter-sweet memories. Some months are better than others, and time continues to move on despite such a significant loss. Living with my mother’s loss has made me more empathetic, and the loss of a loved one like this touches me.

One of the Scholars lost her dad recently. It was not unexpected, but when is one ever truly prepared to lose someone? I remember how my heart hit the floor when I saw the devastating message under the “Urgent Support” tab in Slack. I replied immediately and offered to call her or drive to the dorms just to offer a shoulder to cry on. To my surprise, Beth had already gotten ahold of her and was already on her way to the dorm. Beth then called me, sensing my hesitation and uncertainty, and unexpectedly asked how I was doing and reassured me that I was welcome to join them if that was something I could take on emotionally. I was surprised and touched that Beth had thought of me and my well-being when she called as we, especially the scholar, were in a moment of dismay from this tremendous loss.

I wondered: Was I overstepping? Was being there something she needed or wanted? What would I say? What could I say to soothe someone in such a time of need? I decided to go. Beth had arrived way before me. We three hugged, talked, cried, and just sat together. Even though I was unsure of what to do in an event like this, I brought Gong, a stuffed seal plushie that one of my close friends back home gave me. I told the Scholar she could spend some time with Gong and I hoped some of his love could rub off on her even when she felt alone.

Eventually, some of the other Scholars in the program came in and were able to provide love, support, and comfort to her in a way I do not think Beth and I could have offered at the time. That’s what best friends are for.

After Beth left, our grieving Scholar’s roommate, quad mates, and fellow Scholars joined us for a routine all-girls dinner. As we walked over, I thought about how I knew the grieving Scholar was religious, and I suggested maybe doing a group prayer before we ate. While I wish I could have offered more during that small prayer, or had more to say about her and her father’s relationship, I have found that simply being present and offering support can go a long way in helping someone through a difficult time.

Death is uncomfortable and painful. That does not mean you should try and ignore it—just like all of the other uncomfortable and painful things in life.

I am honored to have been invited in by her in this moment of devastation and to be given the opportunity to show support. We all thought that it might be better not to talk about her dad at all, but the Scholars and I found that our grieving friend found it calming to talk about him, to answer questions about their relationship, about his favorite color. I think this experience showed me that, while death is uncomfortable and painful, that does not mean you should try and ignore it—just like all of the other uncomfortable and painful things in life. When you are able to be brave and face something uncomfortable and painful head-on, it opens the door to healing and connection.

We embraced the opportunity to be there for our friend, to listen, and to provide comfort in whatever ways we each could even if that meant just sitting in silence and eating our food together every once in a while. I think we were brave in this situation, as we were vulnerable and willing to sit with someone in their pain, even if it feels uncomfortable and filled with uncertainty. It means setting aside personal fears or doubts and offering a shoulder to cry on, a listening ear, or a small gesture of love, like bringing a stuffed animal or a card as a source of comfort. It means showing up, even if you don’t have all the answers or know exactly what to say. It means building a safe space for those grieving to express their emotions, share memories, and find solace in the support of others. It is through this bravery that healing and growth can occur, both for the person experiencing the loss and for those offering their support.

Ultimately, I started out my education by pursuing an applied physics degree. After being a mentor in the SEED Scholars program, I found I was experiencing a new kind of passion and joy. I have switched majors to Human Development with a minor in Sociology in hopes of continuing to do things like this in the future.

On Being a Redwood SEED Scholar

Alyssa Bacon, Student, UC Davis

I learned about the Redwood SEED Scholars Program from my case manager at the Regional Center of the East Bay. My family and I went out to look at different colleges and while we still were looking at other colleges my case manager was looking at different ones too, but then we heard about Davis. So, we went to the information session that talked about what’s going on in that program and what it’s going to be like. We saw different things and what my mom was so happy about was it wasn’t too far from home. My mom went there, too.

I also looked at some other colleges in Monterey, Berkeley, Los Angeles, and in Fresno.

Skills That Help in College

Skills I have that help me in college: I shared a room with my sister when both of us were at home. It made college easier because I knew how to be a good roommate and share a room together and how to pick up after myself. And once I moved in I knew how to do all of that already and make my own bed.

And I could make my own food. I can make cheesy scrambled eggs, and I know how to cook spaghetti.

I am also a good leader. I was a good helper at my Girl Scout Camp. I was an elf at Diablo Day Camp, which is a Girl Scout Camp. In the morning I had to get there before all the other girls got there and started the day. I worked in the Hive, which is where the ice is, and I had to pack up wagons and I did songs while the other girls were getting dropped off for camp and sitting on the logs. This skill helped me by engaging with a lot of people and trying to be independent so people don’t have to ask.

What I’ve Learned at UC Davis

I think work experience and living independently will help me in the future.

Don’t overwork yourself. And if you’re sick, take care of yourself.

The other skills that I learned was managing my own time to do stuff, make my own choices for things, and I learned it by learning how my body feels to what I’m doing. I also think all of these skills that I’m learning now will help me in the future and I can pass on the skills to the other future scholars.

Right now I’m working at the Davis Forest School where it’s near Putah Creek. Also, I am a forest mentor because they don’t like saying forest teacher. Also, we let the kids have fun but we watch them and if they need help they can ask for it. I also was the first freshman to get a job in the Winter Quarter because I really wanted to try it out. I worked at the Almond Lab where I cracked and opened Almonds and saw if there was larvae or it was broken into while still on the tree.

Advice

Some advice that I would give to the incoming freshman in the Redwood SEED Program is to be yourself. I say that because If someone just doesn’t like you that’s fine and you shouldn’t change yourself for someone. You are unique and don’t let anyone say that you aren’t unique.

I also recommend that you don’t overwork yourself with homework. I say this because one time in Diablo Valley College I overworked myself by trying to do homework without any breaks. Once I did that and I got a headache, I was tense because I was so stressed with homework. So, that’s why I say don’t overwork yourself.

Also, if you’re sick, make sure you take care of yourself before going to class because if you are really sick you need to take care of your health. All the teachers will understand that you’re sick and your health is the best way to get better and take care of yourself. I learned from myself one day my ears were hurting like crazy and then the next day I was in Math class and I started dozing off and waking up and dozing off again. My math teacher saw this and asked me if I wanted to go lay down back in the dorm but I said no because I didn’t want to miss anything so once he saw me again he told me it was OK to go back to my dorm and get rest and I did what he said I went back to my dorms and slept.

Also if you’re mad you should not bottle up all your anger. Instead, do something you like to let it out. I say that because once in high school I let my anger out only a tiny bit at a time. I recommend letting it out all at once because then you feel better in your body and your mind and soul and you aren’t all tense up and you can finally relax after all that.

SEED Scholars is a four year program and an inclusive program with people with disabilities where we practice living on our own. The first two years we stay in the dorms. Then the last two years we live in the apartments.

Away From Home

Living away from home is cool and all, but sometimes you can get really homesick but you can always call home, facetime, write a letter, send packages and receive packages too. I’m learning right now how to get ready and start work and do all the stuff that I wasn’t doing at home and how to make sure I have enough important stuff that I need instead of different things I don’t need.

After I finish my four years in the Redwood SEED Program I want to get an apartment and maybe have some roommates to split the rent. I don’t know what type of work I will do just yet, but I hope it’s with electronics or animals because I love electronics and animals. I also have a dog back at home. Her name is Piper, a goldendoodle, and me and my family love her so much.

On Being a Mentor in the Redwood SEED Scholar Program

Esmeralda Gonzalez, Student, UC Davis

Before joining the Redwood SEED Scholar Program, I had no knowledge of the true challenges and disparities that people with intellectual disabilities face. Social challenges, like being excluded from any or all interactions with neurotypical students throughout K-12 schooling. I decided to join the program as a mentor for social inclusion, a mentor who shows Scholars around campus and helps them join clubs and organizations, and as a mentor for employment, a mentor who supports the Scholars on their job. As a mentor, I can help bridge these connections and experiences that people with intellectual disabilities often get left behind from.

As a social inclusion and employment mentor, however, I have learned that even at a diverse and inclusive school like UC Davis, these challenges continue for our Scholars. For example, when I was working with a Scholar at the Activities and Recreation Center (ARC), which is a two-story building that holds workout equipment, workout classes, and indoor sports for UC Davis students and the community, most of the co-workers would only refer to me and ignore the Scholar when the Scholar tried to converse with them—even though I strictly told them I am not here to talk nor do the Scholar’s job. It broke my heart to see the Scholar’s co-workers contributing to the social segregation that continues to affect people with intellectual disabilities by portraying them as someone who isn’t worth having a conversation nor friendship with. It also places the Scholars in the position of only having friends or making connections with other people who have intellectual disabilities, which isn’t fair to them because they are more than their disability. One fellow mentor told me that a Scholar mentioned only having friends who are part of their church group and the Redwood SEED Scholar Program. This was devastating to hear, but I can understand why most of their friends came from the program.

As their co-workers ignored and avoided interactions with them, the Scholars were hindered in developing friendships. This barrier to friendship building affects people with intellectual disabilities because they are left to constantly socialize amongst each other, which can be static. Personally, I need a break from the same people every so often. People with intellectual disabilities don’t always have that option. I wish more people would see how amazing the Scholars are. They enjoy partying, singing, dancing, and just having fun. I know they would make great friends outside the program. Many neurotypical people don’t realize what they are missing.

The Redwood SEED Scholar Program, however, is changing things by providing the Scholars and everyone on campus with an opportunity to build connections with one another. I have made friends with the Scholars and other mentors and have created lasting memories with them. One that is very sentimental to me is our quarterly potlucks. For the potlucks, every mentor and one or two Scholars cook a meal together. One Scholar and I decided to make an egg salad. We both cut the ingredients while listening to music, Taylor Swift, because this Scholar particularly loves Taylor Swift. The Scholar then told me that this was their first time ever making an egg salad. I was happy to be part of this experience with them. It then made me realize that it was also many of the other Scholars’ first time cooking and trying new foods. So, the potlucks are not just an opportunity for the mentors and Scholars to network and connect with each other but also an opportunity to try new things and learn.

As a result of that first potluck and the close connections experience that it brought, I have felt that my relationship with the Scholars is more than just a mentoring relationship. It is a family connection. The potlucks created a space for the Scholars to be free from the labels that society places on them and to be instead a genuine version of themselves, without fearing judgment from the outside world.

And even though the potluck created a learning opportunity for the Scholars, the Scholars created a learning opportunity for the mentors and everyone in the program. As a college student, I am always on the go and forget to enjoy the little things in my day. The Scholars have shown me how to take time out of my day to be grateful, make the most of things, and find joy. Once when we were waiting in a long line to get ice cream, I was just standing there on my phone waiting for my turn. The Scholars talked, sang, and danced in line with one another. That’s when I realized that, as a society, we are conditioned to not take or find time in our day to find enjoyment in little things. This inability or refusal to look for joy in everyday moments is the difference between a superficial life and a genuine life.

The Scholars have shown me how to take time out of my day to be grateful, make the most of things, and find joy.

The Redwood SEED Scholar Program is the only program in California that gives people with intellectual disabilities a full four-year college experience. The program is meant to promote independence by providing Scholars the space to live independently in the dorms, work on campus, and attend social activities.

Although this program was created to help the Scholars be more independent and competitive in the working world, this program also brings awareness of the lack of inclusive college programs available as well as of the social, educational, and employment challenges that people with intellectual disabilities face. The SEED Scholars program brings awareness of the social challenges by showing us, mentors, how excluded people with intellectual disabilities are when it comes to representation in clubs, organizations, and employment on campus. The program also shows us how opportunities for higher education are not made available for students with intellectual disabilities.

Program representatives speak in many classrooms as well as at campus meetings to advocate for and bring awareness of the changes that need to be made to bring more inclusion and diversity onto campus. They push for a need for Universal Design for Learning so all students have the opportunity to learn together in one classroom. I hope that as more awareness is brought to these challenges, society will start to make changes that better accommodate people with intellectual disabilities.

The Redwood SEED Scholar Program is still in its early years, yet it has positively impacted the Scholars and mentors by creating an opportunity for people with intellectual disabilities to have access to higher education and friendship that would otherwise not be possible. It also allowed the relationships between mentors and Scholars to grow to become more of a family connection. This experience shows how powerful an inclusive environment and education can be for everyone.

The program has shown me the importance of being in a community that values diversity. Everyone can learn from each other and grow. I personally have grown to be patient and understanding. I also look at the world from a different perspective now. Every time I go home, I realize that there is a lack of understanding and inclusion. I still see many K–12 schools segregating people with intellectual disabilities and neurotypical students.

I also see schools promoting jobs in fast food and retailing for students with disabilities after high school instead of promoting inclusive college programs. But how can a community promote something they are unaware of? I know I was unaware of the opportunities of inclusive college programs until I became a mentor for SEED Scholars and found out how limited programs typically are.

Whenever I go back home and bring awareness to this educational barrier, many of my community members tell me how they never even thought about what happens to students with intellectual disabilities after high school, which shows that people with intellectual disabilities are often forgotten about after high school. I am very hopeful, however, that as our program continues to grow and shows the positive impacts of inclusive college, my community and others will create their own forms of inclusion.

Providing everyone the opportunity to value diversity and learn the importance of inclusive communities allows for this growth to happen. I am truly grateful to be part of this SEED Scholars family. And I hope that states incorporate programs like SEED Scholars so everyone can feel that they belong.

College for All: Resources

• The California State Council on Developmental Disabilities offers resources and programs to support individuals with developmental disabilities and their families. Among its offerings to the California public is the Disability Thrive Initiative. Learn more at https://scdd.ca.gov/iddthrive/

• What’s the Point? A Reflection About the Purpose and Outcomes of College for Students with Intellectual Disabilities, by Meg Grigal and Debra Hart, is a Think College brief on policy, research and practice. https://thinkcollege.net/sites/default/files/files/resources/INSIGHT_2_F2.pdf

• The Redwood SEED Scholars program is one of the nation’s few four-year college programs for individuals with intellectual disabilities. California, however, has numerous two-year college opportunities for these individuals through its College to Career (C2C) program. C2C was launched in 2010–2011 in a pilot for students with autism. The program has expanded to eight campuses that provide pre-vocational and vocational training, campus supports, work experiences and internships, and job development and placement services that prepare students with disabilities for competitive integrated employment. The following community colleges have C2C programs: