“We [at Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) are] creating a world where anyone can feel that they are important and that they have a space in our society to contribute,” said Shawn Mansager, executive director of special education for BUSD. “It is key to the school district that students with learning disabilities are able to participate in general education through the use of Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), and [are] aided by professionals to be the best they can be.”
According to the US Department of Education (USDE), IEPs are plans for students with learning disabilities, wherein specialists, schools, and parents work together to create actionable goals for the students’ learning environment and their social and academic progress.
Students are entitled to an IEP under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Per IDEA, the district must attempt to provide all students with a free and accessible public school education that is appropriate for them.
Nora Costello, a Berkeley International High School (BIHS) sophomore with an IEP, first started taking steps to get one in early elementary school.
“My teachers saw me struggle with things that most kids find easy,” Costello said. “They recommended that I get tested [for a learning disability].”
Mansager said Costello’s identification by her teachers was part of the preliminary process for getting an IEP.
“At some point along the way, a student might not be making as much progress as we expected … [so] we have a student success team meeting,” he said.
At the meeting, individuals such as a school principal, a special education teacher, or a school psychologist would be present.
Costello’s testing was the next step in the IEP process, that of evaluation.
“The evaluation process [looks] like interviewing the family, figuring out the history of the child … and starting to do some tests, to see if they qualify with a disability,” Mansager said.
BIHS sophomore Isabel Swing got a more general type of education plan, a 504 Plan, in elementary school, but later decided to switch to an IEP in middle school.
“The IEP is a legal document that is a lot more useful for my future,” they said.
This is opposed to a 504 Plan, which, according to the USDE, is much less set in stone as to what it provides.
For Swing, the evaluation process was “very long,” to the point of being difficult to navigate.
“I feel like it’s not extremely equitable,” they said. “It takes a lot of diagnoses, which are not easy to get, and your parents need the time to schedule all this testing.”
Once a student receives an IEP, their IEP team helps develop a learning plan that works best for them.
“It could be just academics, or if they need speech and language help, they will have a speech and language therapist; they might need occupational therapy or physical therapy,” Mansager said.
According to IDEA’s website, a tenet of the IDEA is that students are served in Least Restrictive Environments (LREs), making alternative classes or alternative, non-public schools the means of last resort.
Costello’s IEP gives her permission to get extra time on assignments and a reduced workload, and Swing’s allows for notes to be brought during tests, among other accommodations.
Costello and Swing have had no trouble from their teachers about their accommodations, but both said it can be difficult to communicate them.
“It’s been hard for teachers to know their students in larger small schools, so I have to remind them,” Costello said.
Teachers are mandated by law to provide these accommodations, so when they are unable to, the district has to intervene.
“99.9 percent of the time, the teachers want to do what’s best for their students,” Mansager said. “[However], the supervisor might need to step in and help manage things.”
The end goal, for Mansager, is to create a classroom environment that is accommodating without separating students in special education from their peers.
“[We want] to create a classroom environment where students have different ways to share their learning and to express themselves,” Mansager said. “Every time we think a system is perfect, we need to look at where it needs to grow.”