This fall, the Investing in Student Potential (ISP) coalition held five listening sessions with parents, families, and other providers of students with disabilities in Washington. Between October 28 and November 6, we spoke with nearly 40 individuals: they hailed from western, central, and eastern Washington, they spoke Spanish, English, Mandarin, and Arabic, and they were parents, families, and providers for young people with disabilities from PreK to K-12 to Transition-Age. All participants were compensated $40 for their time and were asked the same two questions. What they shared and we learned is outlined below:
BASED ON YOUR EXPERIENCES, HOW CAN EDUCATION BECOME MORE INCLUSIVE AND ACCESSIBLE TO ALL STUDENTS?
Schools should make every child feel known, worthy, and cared for, and do more to build a broader culture of inclusion. Families reported that their child’s sense of belonging at school – the feeling of being known, accepted for who you are and where you come from, and valued by teachers and peers – is essential to their ability to learn and grow. And yet, it has been an elusive quality across the board for many families and students with disabilities. Participants expressed the importance of standardizing inclusive practices at all schools, which they felt was lacking.
Parents are powerful partners and should be recognized as such at school. At almost every listening session, parents shared that they want to be able to work in collaboration with teachers and not against them. Many felt that speaking up for their child forced them to be seen as “that parent,” as one mother put it – a burden on school staff, rather than an essential partner in supporting their child inside and outside of school. This is uniquely challenging among Black, Indigenous, and other families of color who have students with disabilities, as well as those who speak languages other than English. Recognizing parents as partners also means ensuring they are equipped with and understand the resources available to them and their child as they navigate the K-12 special education system and beyond.
“When IEP meetings come around, it’s like you have to go to battle… We aren’t thought of as experts on our kids, or as partners.”
– Listening session participant
The processes around IEP meetings do not fairly set students and families up for success and can do damage to the team. The experience gearing up for and during IEP meetings can take a lot out of parents and families because of the lack of support they often experience in the process. One parent shared that her first IEP meeting was “one of the most disempowering experiences she’s ever had” because she was not familiar with laws and rules around special education, struggled to really process the long and complex documents presented to her, and did not feel like a meaningful part of a team. In addition, essential IEP documents are rarely translated into families’ preferred language or provided ahead of time, which makes the process inaccessible to many.
Schools must prioritize making information readily accessible and understandable to diverse communities and impacted individuals. Language access is an essential component of equity that many participants shared was lacking in their school environments. Families who speak languages other than English experience great disparities in accessing essential information about their child and in collaborating effectively with school staff. In addition, families spoke to the importance of making complex information understandable to families, such as the services available to transition-age youth.
WHAT SUPPORTS AND SOLUTIONS ARE NEEDED TO MAKE THESE CHANGES HAPPEN?
Participants brought a number of big ideas for how to create meaningful change in school systems so that students with disabilities are equitably cared for and supported. Some of the ideas and solutions discussed included:
- Increased and equitable funding: Lifting the cap on special education funding was a priority for many and seen as a fundamental step to ensuring districts and schools can actually meet everyone’s needs.
- Stronger accountability mechanisms: Participants believed if state agencies like OSPI took on a bigger oversight role over districts’ inclusive practices, it would make a big difference for students and families who feel they are not being accommodated and included appropriately at school.
- Training and professional learning: Many saw training for school staff as a necessary tool for disrupting ableism and racism and promoting greater equity. In particular, there is a need for ongoing learning and assistance around implementing inclusive practices like Universal Design for Learning (UDL), and practicing cultural responsiveness at school.
“I had a culturally-informed advocate who spoke Spanish help me fight for my child’s rights, and that really changed things for me. All parents deserve support and to be involved in this way.”
– Listening session participant
- Investments in meaningful family engagement: To many, partnerships with families are an essential part of any inclusive school community. Ensuring language access and system navigation help are fundamentals of this, as is intentional relationship-building between teachers and families.
- Whole-child approaches to learning and support: School should be a place where children feel they belong and are cared about. Like some peer-to-peer mentoring programs, for example, opportunities for social-emotional connection, wellness, and feeling in community are incredibly valuable.
Imagining What’s Possible:
All participants spent time envisioning a public education system designed around meeting the needs of students who are most excluded and least accommodated by our institutions first – most often, these are students and families at the intersections of poverty, ableism, and racism. When we work together, we are stronger and can work towards making this vision a reality in Washington state.