In the summer and fall of 2019, the Investing in Student Potential coalition conducted eight regional listening sessions with partners across Washington in Olympia, Walla Walla, Tri-Cities, Yakima, Spokane, Vancouver, Burien, and Bellingham. The sessions were a venue for community members to share their experiences with special education in Washington state and their vision for a system that will meet the needs of every student in schools across Washington — so that every student can thrive.

For the listening sessions, Investing in Student Potential took steps to create an inclusive environment, including providing facilitation options in languages other than English. However, we acknowledge that there are still barriers and obstacles to participation for students and families from non-dominant cultural backgrounds that impacted who participated in the process and what information was shared in public forums.

More than 150 current and former students, parents, teachers, counselors, administrators, and education leaders came out to hear from others and share their thoughts and experiences. We have compiled and summarized our findings from the listening sessions, and these will inform the work of the coalition going forward. The conversations focused on two areas:

  • What is working in our education system and community now that allows students to thrive?
  • What does it look like, sound like, and feel like when a student is thriving in their school and community?

What is working in our education system and community now that allows students to thrive?

Passionate and caring adults – Families feel supported by passionate and caring adults in school buildings across the state. Even in situations where parents do not feel well-served by the system, there is often an understanding that educators are not put in a position to best support students because of inadequate training or resources that prevents them from providing what students need.

Implementing new approaches – Families shared a desire for districts to continue their progress in adopting new or innovative approaches to better serving students. Universal Design for Learning (UDL), a stronger focus on social-emotional learning (SEL), a more meaningful focus on equity, and restorative practices were consistently looked at with hope and seen as a sign of more positive change on the horizon.

Advocacy and activism – A common thread across all districts was the value and impact of parents and families advocating for their children. Many parents were dismayed at the need to advocate, but found strong and persistent advocacy was the most effective way to get a student what they need to access their education.

Community resources – The organizations and providers active in communities both independent of schools and in partnership with schools across the state are a valuable resource for families in gaining access to supports for students with disabilities and training, education, and supports for parents. Community-rooted efforts were seen by parents and families as meeting critical needs for students and families that might otherwise go unmet.

Different experiences – When students, parents, and practitioners shared what was working, it was clear there is a range of experiences across the state and, at times, within the same district in how people interact with the system of special education. There was variation in how well students and families are being served, the responsiveness of the individualized education program (IEP) process, and how well-equipped districts are to support the needs of students.

What does it look like, sound like, feel like when a student is thriving?

Fostering a sense of membership – Students with disabilities need to be authentically included as part of the fabric and mainstream culture of schools. All students, staff, and members of the community combine to create an inclusive culture and sense of belonging within the school building. Eliminating barriers to students accessing the built environment, general education curriculum, sports, clubs, and other school-based activities can build self-confidence in students with disabilities and ensure they are provided authentic opportunities to be an active part of the school community.

Connection to peers – Students should feel as though they are a part of the school community. Families consistently stressed the importance of ensuring that students feel welcomed in schools and have meaningful opportunities to engage and build relationships with their general education peers. More concerted efforts need to be undertaken to ensure that bullying is addressed in a meaningful way.

Access to resources – Students should have better access to occupational therapists, mental health counselors, interpreters, and other professionals who are part of fulfilling a student’s individualized education program (IEP). Teachers, school leaders, and other staff should receive the training and resources to meet the needs of every student and support the learning of students with disabilities.

High expectations – Families want students to be better supported for their transition to fulfilling their post-high school goals. Better preparation for students for the transition to their career or continued academic studies should include more planning, support, and higher expectations.

Better support for educators – Educators need to be better positioned to succeed with the training and supports they need to implement innovative approaches. Greater adoption of Universal Design for Learning, social-emotional learning, and restorative practices was highlighted by many participants, with an understanding that limited resources don’t position districts to best support their teachers in effectively incorporating these new practices into their daily practice.

More collaborative IEP process – Families are assets and are the most familiar with the needs of their child and what has and hasn’t worked in the past. A more collaborative IEP process can aid in IEPs being more reflective of what will best work for students and ensuring the goals and needs of students with disabilities are reflected in their educational experience.

Looking ahead

The experiences shared and vision for the future that was articulated highlight many areas where we as a state can better serve students, families, and educators. This process will inform the areas of focus for the Investing in Student Potential coalition, both for the upcoming session and for our long-term advocacy efforts, as we work with communities across the state to ensure that every student thrives.


We’re grateful to everyone who came out and shared their thoughts. There is so much more to learn and we’re looking forward to upcoming community conversations.

Email to join us. Every voice matters!


Investing in Student Potential is a coalition of organizations that have come together to ensure that students with disabilities in Washington state thrive. This includes steering committee members League of Education Voters, Washington State Charter Schools Association, The Arc of King County, Open Doors for Multicultural Families, and Roots of Inclusion. We’re also joined by many member organizations and individuals. Want to be a part of it? Add your name here and make a difference for special education in Washington state.