When an IEP is suddenly taken away
Three days before Jack’s triennial IEP (individualized education plan) evaluation, his case manager, Judy, sent an email to Jack’s mother, Gloria: “Just giving you a heads-up—Jack might not qualify for his IEP.”
Judy didn’t offer any explanation or address how Gloria and Jack might feel about this change. Teachers have told Jack his whole life that he needed specific supports in place in school, that he couldn’t manage the curriculum without those supports, and now it looked as if they may be taking them away.
Gloria brought the most recent report along with a copy of Jack’s current grades to the evaluation. He was doing well, and they both thought it was because he used the Premium version of Read&Write for Google Chrome, along with other assistive technology. Jack’s first-period class was with a special-education teacher, Steve, during which they went over all of Jack’s assignments, prioritizing, organizing, and discussing anything that needed clarification.
Judy was there for the evaluation but not Steve, who worked with Jack every day. The school psychologist, Ken, whom they had never met, was there. He did most of the talking and told them that Jack’s scores were too high to qualify Jack as having a learning disability. He said he observed Jack in class, and Jack seemed engaged and able to follow instructions; therefore, effective immediately, Jack was no longer eligible for an IEP.
Jack burst into tears. “What?” he cried.
“Hold on, wait a minute,” Gloria almost yelled. “Jack is doing well because he has the first-period class with Steve and all his accommodations. You can’t just take it all away!”
Judy jumped in, “He can still have all his accommodations; we’ll give him a 504 [Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act], and he can stay in the first-period class the rest of the semester. Nothing will really change.”
“Well, if nothing will change, then why can’t he continue with his IEP?” Gloria prodded.
“He doesn’t qualify,” said Ken.
Jack wiped his face with the back of his hand, “I don’t understand. I need that class.”
Ken closed the file folder he held and stood up, “You don’t qualify. Sorry.”
Gloria looked at Judy, “We don’t even get to talk about this?”
“His counselor will be in touch,” Judy said to the table. She wouldn’t look at Gloria or Jack. The counselor Judy is referring to here is the one specifically assigned to Jack but whom Jack has never met.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Gloria shared later. “They just cut him off. We were devastated.”
Exiting from special education doesn’t have to be like the scenario Jack and Gloria experienced. Jack’s high school support team did a terrible job explaining why this was happening and offered no emotional support or a plan for going forward. They could have focused on Jack’s progress and made it a cause for celebration.
Students should be included, involved, and engaged in their IEPs at all grade levels. Younger students have a smaller role in the process (being introduced to the team players, sharing what they like, etc.), but by the time students are in middle school, they should understand what their IEP means, how it supports their learning, and how to advocate for their accommodations in the classroom. Best practices demonstrate that student success correlates with self-awareness and self-determination.
When a student shows strong academic progress, demonstrates good self-awareness, and uses less specialized instruction and/or fewer accommodations, the student, his parents, and the school team may need to reassess whether an IEP is still needed. College-bound students may also want to consider transitioning to 504 accommodations to prepare for college.
Strong communication among all parties is the most important thing to focus on as the IEP team moves through the IEP-eligibility process. Other recommendations include the following:
1. Begin conversations six months before annual/triennial evaluations. This gives everyone the same baseline understanding, and the parents and student have ample time to prepare questions and address concerns.
2. Ensure parents and students understand the student’s achievements. Provide positive feedback, discuss the student’s progress with the student, talk about the student’s accommodations, and address the possibility of no longer receiving special-education services. Teachers can describe, in detail, what this will look like and how the student’s school day will differ. Teams can do this without predetermining eligibility.
3. Use student-led IEPs in middle and high school. Doing so gives students a stronger voice in their IEPs and future planning.
4. Develop ways to recognize when a student may not need an IEP. For example, have students describe how they use their academic support center, as well as how they are doing in their math and/or literacy special-education classes. Students who complete their assignments and spend class time reading or working independently, for instance, may need educators to know that they are doing well and not slacking off.
5. Discuss alternative ways a student might receive accommodations. Before the IEP meeting and during the IEP-eligibility process, come up with alternative accommodations without predetermining that the student will need them. (Moving from an IEP to a 504 plan still needs to be done with fidelity.)
Students who no longer need special-education services and supports to access their general-education curriculum are to be celebrated. With appropriate student involvement all along the way, exiting from special-education services should be easily agreed upon by the student, parents, and the school team.
Jack did get a 504 plan, though the school never had a followup meeting about it nor did he ever talk to his assigned school counselor. He also told his mom that Ken, the school psychologist, never talked to Jack and came in to “observe” Jack when the class was watching a movie. After some intense talks with his parents, Jack realized that the adults had failed to prepare him for the transition. With some time, he understood that he was free of some of the constraints of special-education services, and he knew he could advocate for the accommodations he needed. He ended the semester with a 3.97 grade point average and is ready for his sophomore year. Since the school never said it, let’s do it here: “Congratulations, Jack!”
Has your child experienced an abrupt shift in IEP status? How did he or she cope?
Anna Stewart is ESME’s Kids with Special Needs Resource Guide and the Solo Mom of a daughter and two sons on the brink of adulthood. She’s a champion for the rights of people living with disabilities and those who love them.
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