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Empowering Diverse Learners

Every year our second-year corps members in Greater Chicago-Northwest Indiana complete a project reflecting on their experiences in the classroom, and develop a theory of change based on how we can better serve our students and communities.

A corps member stands in a hallway.

By Michelle Golonka

May 9, 2019

I’m a Learning Behavior Specialist on the South Side of Chicago. I teach a group of bright, kind, and ambitious young people in an English Life Skills class. To support their development, each of my students has an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). These documents are meant to provide students, their families, and their teachers with a personalized plan of support, and is shaped by each student’s strengths, needs, and interests.

Unfortunately, because of a myriad of reasons ranging from special education staff shortages to the workload expectations of special educators to the format of the document itself, IEP meetings often contain a significant amount of jargon and data that can be very inaccessible to the people the document most concerns—the student and family. Meetings which are intended to empower the student often feel discouraging or distant and the document becomes more of a legal checkbox than something the student can truly own.

I want the IEP to be an empowering document for both students and families. The process of creating them should allow the student to articulate their strengths and needs, and identify what truly helps them learn in the classroom. I believe that if students feel more connected to their IEPs they will advocate more strongly for what they need, which will prepare them for life beyond school.

This is why in my classroom I’ve worked to make this document more accessible. To accomplish this, I’ve been using resources from I’mDetermined, developed by the Virginia Department of Education. These resources were developed to help students with learning disabilities have greater control over their education. With the help of I’mDetermined, I’ve administered lessons that empowered my students in their own understanding of their IEP and articulation of their educational journey. After three weeks of lessons, one of my students was able to lead his IEP meeting and articulate his current performance and goals for next year. Based on the data I retrieved after the meeting, both the student and parent found the meeting to be far more engaging and informative than previous check-ins. While a traditional IEP meeting contains jargon and legalese, these lessons simplify language, break down the purpose of each section, and give ownership of the document back to the student.

These resources allow the student to own their educational trajectory. They also reduce the stigma around disability by empowering and educating. As a special educator, I want to not only continue to use these resources, but also encourage other educators in my building to use them as well, and build a coalition by spreading the news about the resources to colleagues across the city. My hope is that my students will be the owners of their own educational journeys, and use the supports and information provided in their IEP’s to self-advocate for what they need to reach their own personal definition of success.