For children with disabilities and their parents and guardians, navigating the education system can be stressful. Before anyone can focus on schoolwork, families must ensure the school facilities and curricula are accessible and meet their specific needs. Creating an appropriate Individualized Education Program is key, but the process can be difficult to understand without specialized support. With that in mind, some public libraries are stepping in to connect patrons with experts. Using their strong relationships with the community and close ties to local nonprofit organizations, these libraries become a source of information and much-needed assistance for those navigating this challenging but essential element of the education system.
WHAT ARE INDIVIDUALIZED EDUCATION PROGRAMS?
Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 (IDEA), public schools must craft an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for each student with a disability who qualifies for special education. This IEP addresses the student’s entire school experience, including not only academic work but also extracurricular activities. It can cover everything from ensuring that facilities and fixtures are accessible to developing any needed alternative means of assessment.
As the name suggests, each IEP should meet the needs of a specific student. To help achieve this goal, an IEP is drafted by a team that includes not only teachers, specially qualified school representatives and case managers, but also the student and the student’s parents or guardians. Though this requirement is meant to ensure that the student has a clear voice in the process, for many students, parents, and guardians, the process can be intimidating and confusing.
“IEP’s are lengthy documents replete with complex jargon,” Evanston (IL) Community, Advocacy, Support and Education (CASE) Board President Jill Calian notes. “A parent or guardian thrust into the world of special education is not provided with help to decode this document. What is ESY? What is a FBA? What is a BIP? What is “functional performance?” What does “Other Health Impaired” mean? Parents and guardians are often unfamiliar with this terminology, and are consequently unclear as to whether and how these words are important for their child’s educational plan.”
Without the assistance of trained professionals, individuals face a steep learning curve.
SUPPORT FOR CHILDREN AND FAMILIES
Recognizing the need for support in their community, several public libraries partnered with local organizations to develop programming. Laura Lay, Learning Differences Librarian at the San Francisco Public Library, has been working with local partner Support for Families for three years. They offer programming that includes two IEP workshops. Though Support for Families also offers programming in their own facilities, hosting these events at the library allows them to reach more people and Lay can connect attendees with “relevant books to check out and take home.”
At Evanston Public Library, Community Engagement Librarian Jill Skwerski says the idea for an IEP program came from the special needs parent liaison at their local elementary school. The library partnered with Evanston CASE, a local nonprofit that provides services to families with children with disabilities, and have offered IEP 101 and Anatomy of an IEP. These programs teach attendees not only what an IEP is but also schools’ legal obligations to students with disabilities and how to ensure that students’ needs are met on an ongoing basis. At both events, attendees had an opportunity to hear from CASE staff and legal experts.
Brooklyn Public Library’s Inclusive Services Department was approached by an outside partner with the idea for IEP programming. With the help of IncludeNYC, the library offers one-on-one sessions for parents and guardians. They’ve also connected patrons with additional services when needed to help them through the IEP process. IncludeNYC partnered with New York Public Library’s Chatham Square Library to offer IEP programming in English and Mandarin.
At each of these libraries, the IEP programming is only a piece of a larger commitment to offering programming and services for individuals with disabilities and their families. The Evanston Public Library, for example, also hosted Special Needs Family Resource Fairs, “bringing together service providers, clinicians, and interested community members.” But by focusing specifically on IEP programs, the libraries have built strong relationships with this segment of their community and connected them to services they may not have known about otherwise. Not only is this a way for the library to offer a new, needed and relevant service to its patrons, it helps develop stronger ties with your local disability community.
DEVELOPING AN IEP PROGRAM
Advice from librarians who have developed IEP programming shares a universal theme: There is no need to do it alone. All of the libraries found success by identifying and partnering with local organizations to help develop program content and identify families who might benefit from it. These partnerships often end up extending beyond IEP programming.
It may also be possible to get outside support to help defray the costs of the programs. At NYPL Chatham Square Library, Senior Teen/Young Adult Librarian Jeff Katz secured funds for their IEP program as part of a larger effort to enhance programs, services, and resources for teens and children with special needs and their families, as well as forge stronger connections with schools, agencies, and organizations serving children with special needs in the neighborhood. This project was named one of NYPL’s 2017 Innovation Projects, which is an initiative supported by the Charles H. Revson Foundationto offer funding to library staff for “creative, unique ideas that improve programs, services and processes at NYPL.”
As you’re planning your event, keep in mind that, as with all programming, outreach is key to a successful IEP workshop. Beyond the standard outreach networks, this programming can benefit from direct outreach to relevant community organizations. For example, Lay works with Parents Education Network and Decoding Dyslexia CA to publicize the programs and increase participation. If you have strong relationships with your local schools, they may be able to put you in touch with interested parents and guardians. Katz also emphasized the importance of creating promotional materials in all languages commonly spoken in your community.
Though providing such specialized programming may seem daunting, the successful efforts by these libraries show how meaningful it can be.