For our new Special Ed team, it’s about “empowering parents not to need us.”

Our new Special Education Navigation team works with EdNavigator members who are looking for support with the special education process.

Kimberly Shoup is our new Lead Navigator for Special Education. Kimberly comes to EdNavigator with more than 20 years of experience in special education, most recently for Stride, Inc., a national education management company, where she ensured charter school compliance to federal and state special education regulations in multiple states. She’s working alongside Caileen Coleman, a former special education teacher, case manager, administrator, coach, curriculum writer, and Fulbright scholar with a passion for supporting diverse learners and their families. Together, these two are working with EdNavigator members who are looking for support with the special education process.


Kimberly and Caileen are here on the EdNav blog to talk a little bit about their work with families. Can you each tell us a little bit about your background in special education?

Caileen

I’ve been working in schools in New Orleans for about 10 years, always within special education. I started as a special education teacher and then moved into working as a teacher coach for special educators enrolled in an alternative certification program. And then I became a special education coordinator and director of special education for high schools across the Greater New Orleans and Lafayette area.

Kimberly

I always wanted to be a children’s advocate, but I didn’t know how to break into that field. Then in college, I volunteered at a local middle school working with kids who had ADHD. They were extremely intelligent and had a lot of promise, and it really opened my eyes to what special education could do to help children thrive in school. So I earned a BA in Special Education and a MA in Curriculum and Teaching from Michigan State University. The 16 years I spent as a teacher in both urban and suburban traditional public-school settings provided me with an opportunity to really understand the complexities of our educational system. While I taught kindergarten and English Language Learners, most of my teaching career has been with elementary and secondary students in special education. When I was provided with an opportunity to go into special education administration with a national charter management company, I witnessed a lot of the injustices families were facing with getting their children the supports they needed.

Can you say a little bit more about that?

Kimberly

I think there is a tendency for school districts to tell families, "This is what we're offering; take it or leave it." Too often, families that have more resources tend to get what they want, while families that are under-resourced or underrepresented end up having more difficulty. Sometimes I’ve seen this impulse to blame families—this attitude of, "Well, it's their home environment”—instead of really looking at what the school can do to support the student.

Families have very clear legal rights here, right? So what do you see parents and families having to advocate for?

Caileen

It’s not a lack of those rights existing on paper. It’s more about how the schools and districts are supporting families with the resources and knowledge to really understand the process as they're going through it.

Kimberly

Schools can make it difficult for parents by withholding information, or not providing them with guidance to be able to advocate for their children successfully. When you have a parent come into a meeting with an attorney at their side, that meeting is going to play out differently than it would if you have a family that comes in maybe not speaking English fluently, or coming in during a lunch break or between shifts. I think that unfortunately, we see schools taking advantage of families who don’t have the resources and information to advocate for their kids.

One of the things the law says is that children should be educated in the “least restrictive environment.” So we’ll often hear schools point to that and say that means minimal supports in a general education classroom setting. In reality, “least restrictive environment” means that we want the student to be educated with their non-disabled peers to the greatest extent possible. But for some of our students, that may require having a full-time paraprofessional with them in a general education class, or they may need to spend part of their day in a special education setting, or in some cases all of their day in a special education setting. The reality is that special education is expensive. So we do see schools try to avoid providing those supports when they can—because that money has to come from somewhere.

Caileen

Building off of that, I think as a teacher and administrator, I felt conflicted between wanting to support my students and their families with what they needed, while also getting conflicting messages from the school about what we were able to do—given the budget, given our circumstances.

Kimberly

Absolutely. And I think it's really easy to get into a blame game when it comes to supporting students with special needs. Is the school providing the right support? Is the family following through? But the bottom line is that we have a system that isn't working for many families, and it’s difficult for schools, too. The funding for special education is, in reality, not enough to support every need that's out there. So I think it's very hard for teachers. We’re seeing a huge shortage of special education teachers across the country. Not having the people, not having the money—it sets everybody up to fail.

Kimberly and Caileen are here on the EdNav blog to talk a little bit about their work with families. Can you each tell us a little bit about your background in special education?

Caileen

I’ve been working in schools in New Orleans for about 10 years, always within special education. I started as a special education teacher and then moved into working as a teacher coach for special educators enrolled in an alternative certification program. And then I became a special education coordinator and director of special education for high schools across the Greater New Orleans and Lafayette area.

Kimberly

I always wanted to be a children’s advocate, but I didn’t know how to break into that field. Then in college, I volunteered at a local middle school working with kids who had ADHD. They were extremely intelligent and had a lot of promise, and it really opened my eyes to what special education could do to help children thrive in school. So I earned a BA in Special Education and a MA in Curriculum and Teaching from Michigan State University. The 16 years I spent as a teacher in both urban and suburban traditional public-school settings provided me with an opportunity to really understand the complexities of our educational system. While I taught kindergarten and English Language Learners, most of my teaching career has been with elementary and secondary students in special education. When I was provided with an opportunity to go into special education administration with a national charter management company, I witnessed a lot of the injustices families were facing with getting their children the supports they needed.

Can you say a little bit more about that?

Kimberly

I think there is a tendency for school districts to tell families, "This is what we're offering; take it or leave it." Too often, families that have more resources tend to get what they want, while families that are under-resourced or underrepresented end up having more difficulty. Sometimes I’ve seen this impulse to blame families—this attitude of, "Well, it's their home environment”—instead of really looking at what the school can do to support the student.

Families have very clear legal rights here, right? So what do you see parents and families having to advocate for?

Caileen

It’s not a lack of those rights existing on paper. It’s more about how the schools and districts are supporting families with the resources and knowledge to really understand the process as they're going through it.

Kimberly

Schools can make it difficult for parents by withholding information, or not providing them with guidance to be able to advocate for their children successfully. When you have a parent come into a meeting with an attorney at their side, that meeting is going to play out differently than it would if you have a family that comes in maybe not speaking English fluently, or coming in during a lunch break or between shifts. I think that unfortunately, we see schools taking advantage of families who don’t have the resources and information to advocate for their kids.

One of the things the law says is that children should be educated in the “least restrictive environment.” So we’ll often hear schools point to that and say that means minimal supports in a general education classroom setting. In reality, “least restrictive environment” means that we want the student to be educated with their non-disabled peers to the greatest extent possible. But for some of our students, that may require having a full-time paraprofessional with them in a general education class, or they may need to spend part of their day in a special education setting, or in some cases all of their day in a special education setting. The reality is that special education is expensive. So we do see schools try to avoid providing those supports when they can—because that money has to come from somewhere.

Caileen

Building off of that, I think as a teacher and administrator, I felt conflicted between wanting to support my students and their families with what they needed, while also getting conflicting messages from the school about what we were able to do—given the budget, given our circumstances.

Kimberly

Absolutely. And I think it's really easy to get into a blame game when it comes to supporting students with special needs. Is the school providing the right support? Is the family following through? But the bottom line is that we have a system that isn't working for many families, and it’s difficult for schools, too. The funding for special education is, in reality, not enough to support every need that's out there. So I think it's very hard for teachers. We’re seeing a huge shortage of special education teachers across the country. Not having the people, not having the money—it sets everybody up to fail.

“In everything that we're doing, we want to empower parents to not need us.”

Can you both talk a little bit about what you’re working on with your member families right now?

Caileen

I'm supporting most of my families with the evaluation process for special education, whether that’s requesting an initial evaluation or the reevaluation process, which happens every three years once a student is identified as having a disability. I'm also supporting families with preparing and executing an Individual Education Program, or IEP. That means a lot of practicing with parents: What are we going to ask in this IEP meeting? How are we going to review a proposed IEP together to make sure that this is actually the most appropriate plan for your child?

Kimberly

In everything that we're doing, we want to empower parents to not need us. We’re supporting them to grow those skills so that they can not only advocate for their own children, but also support others in their community. So as Caileen said, this is a lot about informing parents of their rights. There is a lot of modeling, prepping, and role playing.

Caileen

Each person is an individual and has unique needs. So with one family, I might attend the first IEP meeting with them. And then I'll have another member who just needs some preparation beforehand and knows exactly how to approach that meeting on their own. It's really dependent on the individual, which is also how special education works in general.

Kimberly

The other piece is that we are really trying to remove this notion that it’s us against them, family against school. Although we're there to support and represent families, we also want to be a resource to the schools—brainstorming ideas that maybe they haven't thought of, that we've seen work in other schools. Because we work across so many different schools, districts, and even states, we can sometimes offer a fresh perspective.

Caileen

It's about building that bridge between the family and the school—moving away from anything that might be adversarial, towards a true partnership. At the end of the day, I think we all—families, teachers, school and district leadership—have the kids’ best interests at heart. It’s about figuring out a way together to make that the reality.

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