Special Education is a Service, Not a Place

A Brief Overview

  • A student with a disability has the right to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). General education spaces and curriculum are LRE.
  • Services are generally portable, and special education is delivered to the student to enable access to FAPE within the LRE to the maximum extent appropriate.
  • Federal law protects a student’s right to FAPE within the LRE in light of a child’s circumstances, not for convenience of resource allocation.
  • The TIES Center at the University of Minnesota partnered with the Haring Center for Inclusive Education at the University of Washington to build a resource to support families and schools in writing IEPs that support students within general education classrooms: Comprehensive Inclusive Education: General Education and the Inclusive IEP.

Full Article

An ill-informed conversation about special education might go something like this:

  • Is your child in special education?
  • Yes.
  • Oh, so your student goes to school in that special classroom, by the office…in the portable…at the end of the hall…in a segregated room?

This conversation includes errors in understanding about what special education is, how it is delivered, and a student’s right to be included with general education peers whenever and wherever possible.

This article intends to clear up confusion. An important concept to understand is in the headline:

Special Education is a service, not a place!

Services are portable, so special education is delivered to the student in the placement that works for the student to receive a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), in light of the child’s circumstances. A student with a disability has the right to FAPE in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE).

General education is the Least Restrictive Environment. An alternative placement is discussed by the student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) team if access to FAPE is not working for the student in a general education setting with supplementary aids and supports.

Here is some vocabulary to further understanding:

  • FAPE: Free Appropriate Public Education. The entitlement of a student who is eligible for special education services.
  • IDEA: Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The entitlement to FAPE is protected by this law that allocates federal funds to support eligible students.
  • LRE: Least Restrictive Environment. A student eligible for special education services has a right to FAPE in the LRE to the maximum extent appropriate. General education is the least restrictive, and an alternative placement is discussed when data indicate that supplementary aids and supports are not working to enable access to FAPE in general education.
  • IEP: Individualized Education Program. School staff and family caregivers make up an IEP team. The team is responsible to develop a program reasonably calculated to enable a student to make progress appropriate toward IEP goals and on grade-level curriculum, in light of the child’s circumstances. Based on a student’s strengths and needs (discovered through evaluation, observation, and review of data), the team collaborates to decide what services enable FAPE and how to deliver those services. Where services are delivered is the last part of the IEP process, and decisions are made by all team members, unless family caregivers choose to excuse some participants or waive the right to a full team process.
  • Equity: When access is achieved with supports so that a person with a disability has a more level or fair opportunity to benefit from the building, service, or program. For example, a student in a wheelchair can access a school with stairs if there is also a ramp. A person with a behavioral health condition might need a unique type of “ramp” to access equitable learning opportunities within general education.
  • Inclusion: When people of all abilities experience an opportunity together, and individuals with disabilities have supports they need to be contributing participants and to receive equal benefit. Although IDEA does not explicitly demand inclusion, the requirement for FAPE in the Least Restrictive Environment is how inclusion is built into special education process.
  • Placement: Where a student learns. Because the IDEA requires LRE, an IEP team considers equity and inclusion in discussions about where a student receives education. General education placement is the Least Restrictive Environment. An IEP team considers ways to offer supplementary aids and supports to enable access to LRE. If interventions fail to enable access to FAPE, the IEP team considers a continuum of placement alternatives—special education classrooms, alternative schools, home-bound instruction, day treatment, residential placement, or an alternative that is uniquely designed. 
  • Supplementary Aids and Supports: The help and productivity enhancers a student needs. Under the IDEA, a student’s unique program and services are intended to enable access to FAPE within LRE. Note that an aid or a support—a service that enables access—is not a place and therefore cannot be considered as an aspect of a restrictive placement. Having a 1:1 to support a student, for example, does not violate LRE. This topic was included in the resolution of a 2017 Citizen Complaint in Washington State. 

Note that the IDEA protects a student’s right to FAPE within LRE in light of a child’s circumstances, not in light of the most convenient way to organize school district resources. Placement is individualized to support a student’s strengths and abilities as well as the needs that are based in disability.

Tip: Families can remind the IEP team to Presume Competence and to boost a student from that position of faith. If the team presumes that a student can be competent in general education, how does it impact the team’s conversation about access to FAPE and placement?

LRE does not mean students with disabilities are on their own

To deliver FAPE, a school district provides lessons uniquely designed to address a student’s strengths and struggles (Specially Designed Instruction/SDI). In addition, the IEP team is responsible to design individualized accommodations and modifications.

  • Accommodations: Productivity enhancers. Examples: adjusted time to complete a task, assistive technology, a different mode for tracking an assignment or schedule, accessible reading materials with text-to-speech or videos embedded with sign language…
  • Modifications: Changes to a requirement. Examples: an alternative test, fewer problems on a worksheet, credit for a video presentation or vision board instead of a term paper.

Note that accommodations and modifications are not “special favors.” Utilizing these is an exercise of disability rights that are protected by the IDEA and civil rights/anti-discrimination laws that include the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (particularly Section 504 as it relates to school) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA—particularly Title II).

Related Services may support LRE and other aspects of equitable access

An IEP may include related services (occupational therapy, speech, nursing, behavioral health support, parent training, etc.). For some students, related services may be part of the support structure to enable inclusion in the Least Restrictive Environment. If an IEP includes related services, then the IEP team discusses how and where they are delivered.

A tool to support inclusion

The TIES Center at the University of Minnesota partnered with the Haring Center for Inclusive Education at the University of Washington to build a resource to support families and schools in writing IEPs that support students within general education classrooms: Comprehensive Inclusive Education: General Education and the Inclusive IEP.

The resource includes a variety of tools and recommendations for how school and family teams can approach their meetings and conversations to support the creation and provision of a program that recognizes:

  • Each child is a general education student. 
  • The general education curriculum and routines and the Individual Education Program (IEP) comprise a student’s full educational program.
  • the IEP for a student qualifying for special education services is not the student’s curriculum.

Keep in mind that IEP teams are required to include staff from general education and special education (WAC 392-172A-03095). All team members are required for formal meetings unless the family signs consent for those absences. Here’s a key statement from the TIES Center resource:

“The IEP is intended to support a student’s progress in general education curriculum and routines, as well as other essential skills that support a student’s independence or interdependence across school, home, and other community environments.  A comprehensive inclusive education program based upon these principles is important because without that focus, a student’s learning opportunities and school and post-school outcomes are diminished. In order to create an effective comprehensive inclusive education program, collaboration between general educators, special educators, and families is needed.”

Mental Health Education and Support at School can be Critical

A Brief Overview

  • Alarming statistics indicate the pandemic worsened many behavioral health outcomes for young people. Governor Jay Inslee on March 14, 2021, issued an emergency proclamation declaring children’s mental health to be in crisis.
  • President Joe Biden issued a Fact Sheet about the nation’s mental health crisis on March 1, 2022, as part of his State of the Union message. This article includes some of what the president shared about youth impacts.
  • Washington State’s 2021 Healthy Youth Survey confirms that children and youth are struggling to maintain well-being.
  • These outcomes make adolescence a critical time for mental health promotion, early identification and intervention. Read on for information and resources.
  • The emotional well-being of students may be served through Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS), which provide a structure for schools to provide education and supports related to student well-being schoolwide.
  • Students with high levels of need may access mental health support through the special education system. Emotional Disturbance is a federal category of disability under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Full Article

Alarming statistics indicate that children and young people are in crisis. Governor Jay Inslee issued an emergency proclamation for children’s mental health on March 14, 2021. Data from Washington’s 2021 Healthy Youth Survey confirm the distressing trends:

Seven out of ten students in tenth grade report feeling nervous, anxious, on edge, or cannot stop worrying. Eight percent said they tried suicide within the past year. Almost 40 percent said their feelings were disturbing enough to interrupt their regular activities, and more than 10 percent of students said they didn’t have anyone to talk to about their feelings. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), only about half of young people who need behavioral health services get them.

According to the 2021 statewide survey, students with disabilities struggle more than most. Also over-represented are girls, students from lower income households, and students whose gender or sexuality is non-binary. Non-binary refers to more than two things; it’s a term often used when discussing people who identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Transgender, Queer, or questioning (LGBTQ+). LGBTQ+ youth can seek crisis help and more from The Trevor Project.

“Reports of our children suffering with mental health issues are a worrisome public health concern,” said Umair A. Shah, MD, MPH, Washington’s Secretary of Health. “Mental health is a part of our children’s overall health and well-being. It is imperative that we all continue to work together to fully support the whole child by providing information and access to behavioral health resources to youth and the trusted adults in their lives.”

Concerns are nationwide. On March 1, 2022, President Joe Biden issued a Fact Sheet stating that grief, trauma, and physical isolation during the past two years have driven Americans to a breaking point:

“Our youth have been particularly impacted as losses from COVID and disruptions in routines and relationships have led to increased social isolation, anxiety, and learning loss.  More than half of parents express concern over their children’s mental well-being. An early study has found that students are about five months behind in math and four months behind in reading, compared with students prior to the pandemic.

“In 2019, one in three high school students and half of female students reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, an overall increase of 40 percent from 2009. Emergency department visits for attempted suicide have risen 51 percent among adolescent girls.”

Mental Health support to students is a statewide priority

Recognizing the unmet needs, Washington State’s 2022 legislature passed a variety of bills to increase support to children and youth with behavioral health conditions. Here are a few examples:

  • HB 1664: Provides funding and incentives for schools to increase numbers of staff who provide physical, social, and emotional support to students. Schools are responsible to report to the state how these funds were used for hiring staff that directly support students and not something else.
  • HB 1800: Requires Health Care Authority (HCA) to build and maintain a website (“parent portal”) to help families seek out behavioral health services. Also supports growth and training requirements for behavioral health ombuds serving youth through the Office of Behavioral Health Consumer Advocacy.
  • HB 1834: Establishes a student absence from school for mental health reasons as an excused absence.
  • HB 1890: Creates an advisory group under the Children and Youth Behavioral Health Work Group (CYBHWG) to build a strategic plan for children, youth transitioning to adulthood, and their caregivers. Also establishes a $200/day stipend (up to 6 meetings per year) for members of the CYBHWG with lived experience who are not attending in a paid professional capacity.

TIP: Family caregivers can get involved in advocacy work!

Here’s another TIP: Families can ask their school who is on site to support students with their mental health needs. Some school districts seek support from an Educational Service District (ESD) to meet student behavioral health needs, so families can also ask whether ESD supports are available. Some ESDs are licensed as behavioral health providers—just ask.

What is MTSS, and why learn this acronym to ask the school about it?

A priority for agencies involved in statewide work is implementation of Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS). Through MTSS, schools support well-being for all students and offer higher levels of support based on student need. Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is key to MTSS, which creates a structure for positive behavioral supports and trauma-informed interventions.

The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) is the state educational agency for Washington schools. In its 2021 budget, OSPI prioritized MTSS as part of a plan to Empower all Schools to Support the Whole Child. In January, 2021, OSPI was awarded a five-year, $5.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education help districts implement MTSS. As a local control state, Washington districts determine their own specific policies and procedures.

TIP: Families can ask school and district staff to describe their MTSS work and how students are receiving support through the various levels/tiers.

Special Education is one pathway for more help

Students may access mental health support through the special education system. Emotional Disturbance is a federal category of disability under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Appropriate support can be especially critical for these students: According to the U.S. Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP), students eligible for school-based services under the ED category are twice as likely to drop out of high school before graduating.

How a student is supported in their life planning could have an impact. PAVE provides a toolkit of information about how to support a student in their preparations for graduation and beyond: School to Adulthood: Transition Planning Toolkit for High School, Life, and Work.

Note that a student with a mental health condition might qualify for an Individualized Education Program (IEP) under the category of Other Health Impairment (OHI), which captures needs related to various medical diagnoses. Other categories that often overlap with behavioral health are Autism and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). IEP eligibility categories are described in the Washington Administrative Codes (WAC 392-172A-01035).

In Washington State, the ED category is referred to as Emotional Behavioral Disability (EBD). If the student’s behavioral health is impaired to a degree that the student is struggling to access school, and the student needs Specially Designed Instruction (SDI), then the student may be eligible for an IEP. Keep in mind that academic subjects are only a part of learning in school: Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is part of the core curriculum. 

An educational evaluation determines whether a student has a disability that significantly impacts access to school and whether Specially Designed Instruction (SDI) and related services are needed for the student to receive a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). FAPE is the entitlement of a student eligible for special education services. An IEP team determines how FAPE/educational services are provided to an individual student.

Behavioral health counseling can be part of an IEP

Counseling can be written into an IEP as a related service. When included in a student’s IEP as educationally necessary for FAPE, a school district is responsible to provide and fund those services. School districts can receive reimbursement for most of the cost of behavioral health services for students who are covered by Medicaid and on an IEP. The Health Care Authority provides information about school-based health services for students who are covered by Medicaid and on an IEP.

A student with a mental health condition who doesn’t qualify for an IEP might be eligible for a Section 504 Plan. A disability that impairs a major life activity triggers Section 504 protections, which include the right to appropriate and individualized accommodations at school. Section 504 is an aspect of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a Civil Rights law that protects against disability discrimination. Students with IEPs and 504 plans are protected by Section 504 rights.

Behavioral Health encompasses a wide range of disability conditions, including those related to substance use disorder, that impact a person’s ability to manage behavior. Sometimes students with behavioral health disabilities bump into disciplinary issues at school. Students with identified disabilities have protections in the disciplinary process: PAVE provides a detailed article about student and family rights related to school discipline.

Placement options for students who struggle with behavior

IEP teams determine the program and placement for a student. In accordance with federal law (IDEA), students have a right to FAPE in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) to the maximum extent appropriate. That means educational services and supports are designed to help students access their general education classroom and curriculum first. If the student is unable to make meaningful progress there because of their individual circumstances and disability condition, then the IEP team considers more restrictive placement options. See PAVE’s article: Special Education is a Service, Not a Place.

If general education is not working, the IEP team is responsible to consider all placement options to find the right fit. There is not a requirement to rule out every “less restrictive” option before choosing a placement that the team agrees will best serve the student’s needs.

Sometimes the IEP team, which includes family, will determine that in order to receive FAPE a student needs to be placed in a Day Treatment or Residential school. OSPI maintains a list of Non-Public Agencies that districts might pay to support the educational needs of a student. Districts may also consider schools that are not listed. Washington State has almost no residential options for students. Schools almost always send students to other states when residential placement is needed.

On May 23, 2022, a Washington affiliate of National Public Radio (KUOW) provided a report about the lack of residential programs in the state and the challenges for families whose students go out of state for residential education: Washington is sending youth in crisis to out-of-state boarding schools; taxpayers pick up the tab.

Residential placement may be necessary because educational needs cannot be served unless medical needs are fully supported. School districts may be responsible in those situations to pay for a residential placement. A precedent-setting court ruling in 2017 was Edmonds v. A.T. The parents of a student with behavioral disabilities filed due process against the Edmonds School District for reimbursement of residential education. The administrative law judge ruled that the district must pay for the residential services because “students cannot be separated from their disabilities.”

Strategies and safety measures for families and teachers

The Healthy Youth Survey is conducted every other year and was delayed from 2020 to 2021 because of the pandemic. Over the years, results are shared along with tips for families and schools. Here are a few considerations built from various data points within the survey:

Hopeful students:

  • Are more interested in schoolwork: Is there a way to make every day at school more connected to what a child cares about?
  • See people who can help: Who are the adults at school that a student can trust and go to for encouragement or guidance?
  • Believe that school is relevant to life: Who is helping the student connect what they are learning now to who they want to become?
  • Are academically successful: Are supports in place to provide adequate help so the student can succeed in learning? Evidence-based instructional strategies are key when students struggle in reading, writing, or math because of learning disabilities, for example.

TIP: Make sure these four topics are part of a school/family discussion when a student is struggling with emotional well-being or behavior that may be impacted by hopelessness.

A 2018 handout includes tips for parents and other adults who support teens who feel anxious or depressed:

  • Bond with them: Unconditional love includes clear statements that you value them, and your actions show you want to stay involved in their lives.
  • Talk with teens about their feelings and show you care. Listen to their point of view. Suicidal thinking often comes from a wish to end psychological pain.
  • Help teens learn effective coping strategies and resiliency skills to deal with stress, expectations of others, relationship problems, and challenging life events.
  • Have an evening as a family where everyone creates their own mental health safety plan.
  • Learn about warning signs and where to get help
  • Ask: “Are you thinking about suicide?” Don’t be afraid that talking about it will give them the idea. If you’ve observed any warning signs, chances are they’re already thinking about it.
  • If you own a firearm, keep it secured where a teen could not access it.
  • Lock up medications children shouldn’t have access to.

A press for school-based services and mental health literacy

Advocacy for direct school-based mental health services and education about mental health topics comes from the University of Washington’s SMART Center. SMART stands for School Mental Health Assessment Research and Training. The SMART center in 2020 provided a report: The Case for School Mental Health. The document includes state and national data that strongly indicate school-based behavioral health services are effective:

“Increased access to mental health services and supports in schools is vital to improving the physical and psychological safety of our students and schools, as well as academic performance and problem-solving skills. Availability of comprehensive school mental health promotes a school culture in which students feel safe to report safety concerns, which is proven to be among the most effective school safety strategies.”

The SMART Center in partnership with the non-profit Chad’s Legacy Project in 2021 established an online Student/Youth Mental Health Literacy Library. Intended for staff at middle and high schools, the library provides resources to help schools choose curricula for mental health education on topics that include Social Emotional Learning, Substance Use Disorder, and Suicide Prevention.

Goals of mental health literacy are:

  • Understanding how to foster and maintain good mental health
  • Understanding mental disorders and their treatments
  • Decreasing Stigma
  • Understanding how to seek help effectively for self and others

TIP: Families can direct their schools to this resource to support development or growth of a mental health education program.

For information, help during a crisis, emotional support, and referrals:  

  • Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK): After July 16, 2022, call 988
  • Text “HEAL” to 741741 to reach a trained Crisis Text Line counselor
  • Trevor Project Lifeline (LGBTQ) (1-866-488-7386)
  • The Washington Recovery Help Line (1-866-789-1511)
  • TeenLink (1-866-833-6546; 6pm-10pm PST)
  • Seattle Children’s Hospital has a referral helpline. Families can call 833-303-5437, Monday-Friday, 8-5, to connect with a referral specialist. The service is free for families statewide

Further information on mental health and suicide:  

Family Support

  • PAVE’s Family-to-Family Health Information Center provides technical assistance to families navigating health systems related to disability. Click Get Help at wapave.org or call 800-572-7368 for individualized assistance. Family Voices of Washington provides further information and resources.
  • A Facebook group called Healthy Minds Healthy Futures provides a place to connect with other families.
  • Family caregivers can request support and training from COPE (Center of Parent Excellence), which offers support group meetings and direct help from lead parent support specialists as part of a statewide program called A Common Voice.
  • Washington State Community Connectors (WSCC) sponsors an annual family training weekend, manages an SUD Family Navigator training, and offers ways for families to share their experiences and support one another. With passage of HB 1800 in 2022, WSCC is working with the Health Care Authority to build a statewide website to help families navigate behavioral health services.
  • Family, Youth, and System Partner Round Table (FYSPRT) is a statewide hub for family networking and emotional support. Some regions have distinct groups for young people.

Ready for Work: Vocational Rehabilitation Provides Guidance and Tools

A Brief Overview

  • Vocational rehabilitation (VR) is a federal right. Pre-Employment Transition Services (Pre-ETS) are one way to get support. Another is through 1:1 counseling and an Individualized Plan for Employment (IPE).
  • In Washington State, the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR) provides Pre-ETS and VR services. To seek support for a student still working toward a diploma, contact the DVR counselor assigned to the student’s school. DSHS maintains an interactive map: Find a School Transition Counselor.
  • Individuals with vision impairment and blindness are served through a separate vocational rehabilitation agency in Washington State, the Department of Services for the Blind (DSB).
  • After graduation, a student with a tribal affiliation may be eligible for support from Tribal Vocational Rehabilitation (TVR). Each TVR agency operates independently. Contact information is listed on a TVR website page, within DVR’s website.
  • Graduating seniors can seek DVR, TVR, or DSB services now!

Full Article

Teenagers and young adults with disabilities have additional considerations when deciding what life looks like after high school. The transition planning process begins in middle school, when all Washington State students work with counseling staff to begin their High School and Beyond Plan.

For students with disabilities, that lengthy planning process is enhanced when the Individualized Education Program (IEP) adds a Transition Plan, required by the school year when a student turns 16.

Vocational rehabilitation agencies can be part of that process and support a warm hand-off into the world of work. PAVE provides an infographic Transition Triangle with more about the way these services can wrap around a student as they move through school and beyond.

Vocational Rehabilitation services are a civil right

The right to vocational rehabilitation (VR) services is an aspect of Title 1 of the amended Rehabilitation Act of 1973. In 2014, the Rehabilitation Act, which guarantees equitable access to public spaces and programs, was further amended to include the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA).

Pre-Employment Transition Services (Pre-ETS) were already an aspect of the Rehabilitation Act, but WIOA further defines Pre-ETS and requires that VR agencies set aside 15 percent of their funding to provide or arrange for the provision of Pre-ETS.

Note that Section 504 is also a feature of the Rehabilitation Act. Section 504 guarantees the right to accommodations for equitable access in public facilities and programs.

Section 504 is the basis for a student’s “504 Plan” that provides accommodations, modifications, and anti-discrimination measures for educational access. Section 504 protections aren’t limited to school: Like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Section 504 protects a person in higher education, work, and elsewhere throughout the lifespan. Students with IEPs also have Section 504 protections.

In other words, the accommodations from a student’s 504 Plan or IEP travel with them into higher education, work, and more. Section 504 and the ADA protect an individual with disabilities throughout their life. Denial of accommodation is considered discrimination under these civil rights laws.

In Washington State, vocational rehabilitation services are provided by the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR), which is housed within the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS).

After graduation, a student with a tribal affiliation may be eligible for support from Tribal Vocational Rehabilitation (TVR). TVR agencies operate with sovereignty; contact information is included within DVR’s website, on a TVR website page.

Individuals with vision impairment and blindness are served through a separate vocational rehabilitation agency in Washington State, the Department of Services for the Blind (DSB).

Pre-ETS help students look ahead to their job options after graduation

Pre-Employment Transition Services (Pre-ETS) include job exploration, work-based learning, counseling about further educational options, workplace readiness and self-advocacy training.

Summer programs are available in some areas. To find the forms to enroll in Pre-ETS and for information about programs and regional counselors in your area, visit DVR’s website page called High School Transition.

Pre-ETS include five required services. Each service in this list is linked to a resource for further investigation. DVR counselors can provide additional resources to suit an individual’s unique circumstances:

  1. Job exploration counseling: career speakers, interest and ability inventories, investigation of labor market statistics and trends, and more
  2. Work-based learning experiences: in-school or after school opportunities, including internships, provided in an integrated environment to the maximum extent possible. According to the Brookings Institution, work-based learning is predictive of future job quality.
  3. Counseling on opportunities for further education: How to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) and how to locate disability resource centers at colleges and universities are part of college readiness.
  4. Workplace readiness training to develop social skills and independent living
  5. Instruction in self-advocacy, which may include peer mentoring, training in disability disclosure, and more

Order of Selection impacts access to 1:1 DVR support

The Individualized Plan for Employment (IPE) is a DVR program that is separate from Pre-Employment Transition Services (Pre-ETS). The IPE is supported 1:1, whereas pre-employment services are generally provided to groups of students.

DVR operates with Order of Selection when clients apply for individualized vocational rehabilitation (VR) counseling. Through Order of Selection, individuals with the highest needs for support are prioritized.

When developing an IPE, the client and counselor establish a goal for employment; the counselor provides coaching, logistical and sometimes financial support to help make that happen. The case remains open until the employment goal is met if the client remains meaningfully engaged in the process. IPE services might include educational support if further education is needed to achieve a job goal.

Can a student get Pre-ETS and 1:1 help?

A student might receive services through both programs—Pre-ETS and the Individualized Plan for Employment (IPE). However, families should be aware that there are some specific rules related to Order of Selection.

  • If a student is already participating in Pre-ETS, the student can apply for an IPE and Order of Selection will not impact the student’s ongoing engagement in Pre-ETS.
  • If the student applies for an IPE first and is put on a waiting list, then the student also will have to wait to begin Pre-ETS.
  • A student will have more access to DVR services by engaging with the Pre-ETS first and then considering whether to also apply for individualized support.

Resources for more information

Research shows that access to an array of collaborative services during high school improves post-secondary outcomes, especially when school staff and service providers get to know one another and there are “warm hand-offs” between individuals who develop trusted relationships with the young person, according to data shared by the National Technical Assistance Center on Transition (NTACT). Another place for data and detail about WIOA is the Workforce Innovation Technical Assistance Center (WINTAC).

Engagement with vocational rehabilitation services is supported by initiatives endorsed by the U.S. Department of Labor and its Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP). These federal agencies promote the concept of Employment First, a framework for systems change centered on the premise that all citizens, including individuals with significant disabilities, are capable of full participation in integrated employment and community life. 

The PACER Center, a Minnesota-based agency founded in 1977 to promote a “parents helping parents” philosophy, supports the National Parent Center on Transition and Employment, which offers a collection of materials with more information about vocational rehabilitation and how to benefit from pre-employment and employment services. Included in the PACER Center’s materials is a booklet for parents to help young people prepare for college and careers.

Washington’s DVR program provides a video about the school-to-work transition with young people talking about their experiences with the agency and how it helped.

Glossary of Key Terms for Life After High School Planning

ADA: Americans with Disabilities Act. Prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all public and private places open to the general public.

Adult Services: Programs available to support individuals after they become legal adults at 18.

Age of Majority: In Washington, 18. An adult is responsible for educational, vocational, financial, and other decisions unless other arrangements are made through legal means.

Aging Out: The process of ending the school year in which a student turns 21 and is no longer eligible for special education (IEP) services.

Compensatory Services: Extra educational services provided because an IEP team or another agency with authority determines that a student with a disability did not receive a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE).

DDA: Developmental Disabilities Administration. A state agency that provides a variety of employment, personal care, supportive housing, and other services based on eligibility. Transition-age youth may be eligible for a school-to-work program if one is available in their region.

DSB: Department of Services for the Blind. A state agency that provides vocational services and orientation and mobility training for individuals with visual impairments.

DVR: Division of Vocational Rehabilitation. A state agency that provides employment services to individuals with a wide range of disability circumstances. Students still enrolled in school might receive Pre-Employment Transition Services (Pre-ETS), and young adults also might apply for 1:1 support with an Individualized Plan for Employment (IPE). The agency has a wait list, called Order of Selection, for 1:1 IPE support but not for Pre-ETS.

Educational Evaluation: Used to determine eligibility for school-based services. A wide variety of assessments, questionnaires, and other tools determine how disability impacts a student’s ability to access academic and non-academic areas of education and whether specially designed instruction is needed to access FAPE.

Equity: A quality of fairness that is present when someone with a disability has appropriate, individualized help to enable the same access to opportunities that are available to individuals without disabilities.

ESSA: Every Student Succeeds Act. A 2015 law that reauthorized the 50-year-old Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the nation’s education law that provides equal opportunity for all students.

FAPE: Free Appropriate Public Education. Learning that is equitable, accessible, and meaningful. FAPE is what a student with a disability is entitled to receive from the school, based on documented, individualized needs.

High School and Beyond Plan (HSBP): a future planning tool that is required for all Washington State students, beginning no later than 8th grade.

IDEA: Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Federal law that grants funding to states to support educational programming for eligible students with disabilities. IDEA Part B supports children 3-21, and Part C supports children Birth-3.

IEP: Individualized Education Program. A unique school services plan for a student who is eligible based on disability circumstances, managed and documented by a team that includes family members and professionals.

IEP Transition Plan: A component of the IEP that is required by age 16 but can be added any time the student and IEP team are ready to discuss future goals and incorporate them into the student’s program, with goals and progress monitoring that consider life plans.

Inclusion: An environment where individuals with disabilities and without disabilities are learning or working together. The IDEA requires schools to deliver FAPE in the Least Restrictive Environment to encourage the inclusion of all students in general education spaces.

Individualized Plan for Employment (IPE): A service plan with support from a vocational rehabilitation agency.

Kevin’s Law: A Washington State law stating that a student receiving special education services has the right to participate in commencement ceremonies with same-age peers, regardless of when a diploma is earned.

LRE: Least Restrictive Environment. IDEA requirement that students receive special education services in general education settings to the maximum extent appropriate. Schools document why a student is unable to access FAPE within LRE (general education) before placing a student in a restrictive setting.

OCR: Office for Civil Rights. An enforcement agency that manages formal complaints and provides information about civil rights that protect individuals from discrimination based on race, gender, disability, and other factors. The U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights is a federal agency with the responsibility of ensuring equal access to education through the enforcement of civil rights.

OEO: WA Governor’s Office of the Educational Ombuds: State agency that provides free online resources and 1:1 support for families navigating educational systems. 

OSEP: Office of Special Education Programs. Federal agency within the US Department of Education that is responsible to administer the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

OSERS: Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services. US Department of Education program with a mission “to provide leadership to achieve full integration and participation in society of people with disabilities by ensuring equal opportunity and access to, and excellence in, education, employment and community living.”

OSPI: Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. Washington’s educational agency that partners with the state’s nine Educational Service Districts (ESDs) to provide guidance to Local Education Agencies (LEAs) that include 295 districts and 6 state-tribal education compact schools.

PAVE: Partnerships for Action, Voices for Empowerment. A non-profit agency that supports Washington families impacted by disability. A PAVE program is Parent Training and Information (PTI), which provides information, training, resources, and technical assistance to help family caregivers, students and professionals understand rights and responsibilities within education systems.

Person Centered Planning (PCP) : A method for helping an individual explore and celebrate life goals while building specific action steps and gathering people to offer support.

Pre-Employment Transition Services (Pre-ETS): Provided for groups of students by a vocational rehabilitation agency. In Washington DVR provides Pre-ETS for many disabilities, and DSB provides Pre-ETS for students with visual impairment. Included are job exploration, work-based learning experiences, counseling about educational opportunities, workplace readiness training, and instruction in self-advocacy.

Prior Written Notice (PWN): A required document that schools provide families after formal meetings. The PWN summarizes what was discussed and any agreements, disagreements, action items, or amendments to a student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP). A family/school communication plan can be designed at a meeting and documented in the PWN.

Procedural Safeguards: Written description of special education process, student/family rights, and options for dispute resolution.

Recovery Services: Additional educational opportunities considered to support students significantly impacted by the national health emergency caused by COVID-19.

School-to-Work: Programs available in many counties for students eligible for support from the Developmental Disabilities Administration (DDA).

Secondary Transition: Planning for and progressing through the change from high school to adult life.

Section 504: Part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.  Provides anti-discrimination protections for individuals with disabilities throughout the lifespan.

Self-Advocacy: Ability to share thoughts and feelings, understand rights and responsibilities, make independent choices, and ask for help when needed.

SMART Goals: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, and Relevant goals set within a specific span of Time.

Synchronous/Asynchronous Instruction: Educational methods during distance learning. Synchronous instruction is provided when school staff directly interact with students in “real time,” whereas asynchronous instruction is recorded, independent, or parent-supported learning without school staff directly present.

Transition Services: Programming uniquely designed to support a student in preparation for adult life. Needs,  strengths, preferences, and interests are considered for development of specially designed instruction, related services, community experiences, employment and other postschool adult living objectives. If appropriate, services include acquisition of daily living skills and provision of a functional vocational evaluation.

TVR: Tribal Vocational Rehabilitation. TVR is available for people with tribal affiliations in some areas of the state. Each TVR program operates independently. Contact each agency, listed on DVR’s website, for complete information about program access, service area, and eligibility.

You can download this information below:

What’s Next? High School Transition Planning Timeline

High School Transition Planning Timeline

Click to print out this graphic

Description of the above graphic:

What’s Next?

High School Transition Planning

Mapping the Future

Check these milestones to ensure high school paves a pathway for young adult success and achievement!

Ages 13-14
Student begins High School and Beyond Plan in Middle School—a WA State requirement for all students.

Ages 15-16
IEP includes a Transition Plan, aligned with High School and Beyond Plan. Student is a member of the IEP team, which plans a pathway toward a diploma and target graduation date.

Age 16
Get state identification card. Consider Pre-Employment Transition Services from DVR/DSB or School-to-Work planning with DDA.

Ages 17-18
Coursework, IEP, High School and Beyond Plan, DDA/DVR all support student’s life goals and progress toward a diploma.

Age 18
Register to vote! Participate in Commencement and senior year activities, regardless of when diploma is earned.

Ages 18-19
Student may continue education in a high school transition program.

Ages 20-21
Student earns a diploma. May apply for individualized employment support from DVR/TVR/DSB or DDA.

DVR: Division of Vocational Rehabilitation

TVR: Tribal Vocational Rehabilitation

DSB: Department of Services for the Blind

DDA: Developmental Disabilities Administration

Download this graphic to print and keep handy!

Need more information? Consider reading the article School to Adulthood: Transition Planning Toolkit for High School, Life, and Work

Transition Triangle

The transition triangle talks about the relationship between the High School and Beyond Plan , the IEP transition plan and Agency supports from DDA, DVR and DSB. within that triangle of support is the student asking themselves: Who they are, what is their future and their goals.

The planning process to support a student with disabilities toward their adult life plans requires coordination and organization. This graphic provides a visual overview of the work and who is responsible to help.

The center upside down triangle describes key questions for a student as they move through school and toward adulthood:

  1. Who am I? Answers include what the student is interested in, what they are good at, what they struggle with, and how they see themselves.
  2. What’s my future? Students can begin to imagine where they might work, whether higher education will be part of their future, and how they might live.
  3. How do I reach my goals? The answers are a long-term project. A good planning process ensures that work done today is moving the student toward their vision for adult life.

The three colored triangles on the corners of the graphic represent three tools that help students ask and answer these questions.

The purple triangle on the bottom left represents the High School and Beyond Plan. Washington State requires schools to begin supporting all students with a High School and Beyond Plan before they leave middle school. The plan includes questions to help the student think about where they might work someday and how much education they will need to get that job. The plan is designed to make sure time spent in school is moving the student toward adult goals. The High School and Beyond Plan addresses the same questions that are listed in the center of our triangle and is often managed by staff in a school’s counseling center.

The blue triangle on the bottom right represents the transition plan, which is required in a student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) by the school year when they turn 16. Goals in the IEP Transition Plan include further education/training, employment, and independent living as parts of a student’s program. A student with disabilities has the right to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) until they earn a diploma or turn 21. The IEP includes a target graduation date, determined by the IEP team. The state requires the IEP Transition Plan to align with the High School and Beyond Plan. School staff and the family collaborate to make sure these two tools match up to best support a student’s progress.

The teal triangle on top of the pyramid represents agencies that might provide Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) services. The Developmental Disabilities Administration (DDA) has a variety of school-to-work programs for eligible students: A DDA case manager can provide information about options. The Division of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR) provides Pre-Employment Transition Services (Pre-ETS) for students still in school as well as vocational rehabilitation services for adults with disabilities. As they transition out of school, members of some Native American tribes may access Tribal Vocational Rehabilitation (TVR) services. The Department of Services for the Blind (DSB) is a separate agency providing Pre-ETS for youth and vocational rehabilitation services for individuals who are blind or low vision. Staff from these agencies may work with an IEP team and counselors at school to make sure everyone is working together to support the student in the center.

Ideally a student with disabilities has people supporting all of the features on this transition triangle. Best practice is for all agencies and supporters to collaborate as they help a student move toward a successful adult life.

For direct assistance from PAVE, click Get Help. The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) provides information about graduation requirements for a student in Washington State

Supporting literacy: Text-to-Speech and IEP goal setting for students with learning disabilities

A child who struggles to read can quickly fall behind in school. Nearly every academic area includes some reading, and children might become confused or frustrated when they don’t get help to make sense of their schoolwork. Behavior challenges can result, and sometimes schools and parents struggle to understand why the student is having a hard time.

This video provides information about two primary ways that schools can support students with learning disabilities that impact literacy:

  • Text-to-Speech (technology that provides audio-visual communication)
  • Specially Designed Instruction (SDI)

Student learning accelerates when both strategies work together, and this video provides tips for making that happen.

Washington passed a law in 2018 requiring schools to screen young children for the indicators of weaknesses associated with dyslexia and support literacy across all grades. The law took effect in the 2021-22 school year. PAVE provides an article with more information: Dyslexia Screening and Interventions: State Requirements and Resources.

After you view the video, please take a quick moment to complete our survey. Your feedback is valuable!

Sample Letter to Request Evaluation

A Brief Overview

  • Washington State requires special education referrals to be in writing (WAC 392-172A-03005). Anyone with knowledge of a student can write a referral.
  • The state provides a form for making a special education referral, downloadable from a website page titled, Making a Referral for Special Education. The form is not required—any written request is valid.
  • Schools are responsible to provide families with a referral form in their native language and to provide qualified interpreters so families can participate in all meetings to discuss their student’s special education eligibility and services.
  • Another option is to write a referral using the sample letter at the end of this article.
  • Evaluation process and family/student rights are described in the special education Procedural Safeguards, updated in 2022.

Full Article

When a student is struggling in school and there is reason to suspect the challenges are disability related, anyone can refer the student for an educational evaluation. If the evaluation shows that the student is eligible, services are provided through an Individualized Education Program (IEP). Washington State requires special education referrals to be in writing (WAC 392-172A-03005).

 If someone who knows the student asks for an evaluation, the school is responsible to:

  • Document the request
  • Record the date the referral was made
  • Provide a referral form in the person’s native language
  • Respond to the request within 25 school days

If the person asking for the evaluation cannot write, the school is responsible to support them to complete the referral.

The school must provide a referral form in the native language of the person making the request. Schools are required to provide qualified interpreters to support parent participation in the referral process and for all meetings where a student’s eligibility and/or educational services are discussed. See Parent Rights Information Sheets, downloadable in many languages.

Here’s a summary of evaluation timelines:

  • The school has 25 school days to respond to a referral.
  • After a parent/caregiver signs consent, the school has 35 school days to evaluate the student.
  • If eligibility is found, the school has 30 calendar days to write an IEP and seek parent/caregiver consent for services to begin.

The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) is the guidance agency for Washington State. OSPI provides a form for making a special education referral, downloadable from a website page titled, Making a Referral for Special Education. Families may use OSPI’s form, a form provided by their school, or their own choice of format to write their request for a student to be evaluated. PAVE’s sample letter at the end of this article is an option.

A non-discriminatory evaluation is part of the protections for a student with a known or suspected disability that may significantly impact their access to education (Child Find Mandate). Child Find protections are part of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Child Find applies whether there are academic and/or non-academic school impacts.

PAVE provides more detail about IEP eligibility and evaluation process: Evaluations Part 1: Where to Start When a Student Needs Special Help at School.

The clock starts ticking when a request is made

The school has 25 school days after the initial request date to decide whether to evaluate the student who was referred. School days are days when students attend school. The school district lets the family know their decision through a formal letter called Prior Written Notice (PWN), which is described in the Washington Administrative Codes (WAC 392-172A-05010).

Often the school and family meet to discuss the referral and how the student is doing. If all agree to proceed with an evaluation, parents sign consent for the testing to begin. The family can ask questions about what the evaluation will include. Evaluating all areas of suspected disability and educational impact is important to learn as much as possible about the student’s strengths and needs. Information from the evaluation is used to build the services program if the student is found eligible for an IEP.

If the school says no to the evaluation and the family disagrees, they have dispute resolution options that are described in special education Procedural Safeguards, updated in 2022.

Parent consent is required

When the school agrees to evaluate the student, staff must promptly seek parent consent to begin the evaluation process (WAC 392-172A-03005).

Generally, parents sign a form that lists what the school will include in its evaluation. Parents can ask for additional areas to be evaluated to make sure the school gets data for all areas of concern. Families can ask for more information about what the evaluation will look like, where it will take place, how long it will take, and who will participate. The school and family can creatively plan the evaluation process if accommodations are needed. For example, if a student isn’t able to attend in-person school, the evaluation can be done in alternative locations.

After a parent signs consent, the school has 35 school days to finish the evaluation and meet with the family to talk about the results. The deadline may be extended if the family agrees, particularly to accommodate needs of the family or student.

The 35-day deadline does not apply if the student is unavailable for the evaluation or enrolls in another school district before the evaluation is finished (WAC 392-172A-03005).

For students found eligible for services, the school develops an IEP within 30 calendar days and requests parent consent for services to begin. The school and family meet to review a DRAFT version of the IEP and write a final version together before consent is signed. School staff provide a Prior Written Notice (PWN) with a summary of the meeting, agreements, and timelines before services start. PWN requirements are described in WAC 392-172A-05010.

Special Education is a service, not a location within the school

A request for a special education evaluation is NOT a recommendation to remove a student from the regular classroom and move them into an exclusive learning environment. Federal and state laws require that students receive education and services in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) to the maximum extent possible to meet their needs.

Decisions about placement are made by the IEP team, which includes the family. The IEP team is responsible to consider the child’s circumstances and capacities as its top priority—not pre-built programs or district resources.

Special Education is a service, while LRE refers to placement. PAVE’s article provides further information: Special Education is a Service, Not a Place. Another article provides detail about parent participation in special education process: Parent Participation in Special Education Process is a Priority Under Federal Law.

Parents can appeal decisions and/or seek a 504 plan

If a student is evaluated and found not eligible for an IEP (or if the school refuses to do an evaluation), the family has the right to dispute the decision using Procedural Safeguards.

If they disagree with the district’s evaluation or its findings, the family may seek an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE), which is done by an agency outside of the school district. The district must pay for an IEE or deny the request using Due Process. See PAVE’s article: Evaluations Part 2: Next Steps if the School Says ‘No’ to Your Request. The article includes a sample letter to request an IEE.

Another option if a student doesn’t get an IEP is to develop a Section 504 Plan, which accommodates a person with a disability that impacts a major life activity (learning, walking, speaking, writing, socializing…). Section 504 is part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which protects the civil rights of individuals with disabilities against discrimination throughout their lives. See PAVE’s article about Section 504 rights, which also protect students who qualify for an IEP: Section 504: A Plan for Equity, Access and Accommodations.

Sample letter for a special education referral

Below is a sample letter to write a request for a special education evaluation. You can copy and paste the text of this sample letter into your word processor to build your own letter.

The state provides an alternative form, downloadable from OSPI’s website page titled, Making a Referral for Special Education. Your school district is responsible to provide a form, in your language, for you to submit your written request. These formats are your choice—any written request is valid. If you cannot write, you can ask for an evaluation by telling the school and they can write the request with you.

Submit your written request through email, by mail, or by hand delivery, to the special education/special services manager at your school’s district office. You may submit additional copies to school administrators and/or a school psychologist—the person who manages evaluations for your school. Be sure to keep copies of all of your communications with the school in an organized, safe place.

From:

Your Name

Your relationship to the student

Your phone number

Your email address

The date you submit the request

To: [name of person and/or district],

I am requesting a full and individual evaluation for NAME, (birth date: 00-00-0000), for assessment as a special education student as stipulated in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, (IDEA, Public Law 108-446), and in the Washington Administrative Code (WAC 392-172A). My child is being evaluated for the first time [or include information if student was previously evaluated or received IEP or Section 504 services].

My student attends [name of school] and is currently in [grade level]. We speak [language] in our home, and we need a qualified interpreter for all meetings where our child’s eligibility and services are discussed.

I have concerns that (NAME) is not receiving full educational benefit from school because of their struggles with [brief summary of biggest disability-related concern].

I understand that the evaluation is to be in all areas of suspected disability, and that the school district is to provide this evaluation at no charge to me. My reasons for requesting this evaluation are: [be as specific as you can/note that OSPI’s form suggests possible academic and physical/behavioral concerns]

  • Use bullet points.
  • Use bullet points.
  • Use bullet points.

Here are some areas where [name] is struggling:

  • Use bullet points.
  • Use bullet points.
  • Use bullet points.

Based on what I know about my student, here are some supports that I think are needed:

  • Use bullet points.
  • Use bullet points.
  • Use bullet points.

[Name] has been medically diagnosed with [Diagnoses, if available… Or you might write: Name is awaiting a medical evaluation for … Note that a medical diagnosis is not required for schools to conduct an educational evaluation and to find a student eligible for services].

I have attached documentation from [list any outside providers who provided letters or reports]. Please take note that [Dr. NAME] recommends [highlight any specific recommendations from those attached documents] because [reason].

I understand that I am an equal member of the team for development of an Individualized Education Program (IEP) and that I will be involved in any meetings related to evaluation, identification of disability, provision of services, placement, or other decisions regarding my child’s access to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). I would appreciate meeting with each person who will be doing an evaluation before [NAME] is tested so that I might share information and history. I will expect a copy of the written report generated by each evaluator so that I might review it before the team meeting.

I understand you must have my written permission for these tests to be administered, and I will be happy to provide that upon receipt of the proper forms.

I appreciate your help in behalf of [NAME].

Sincerely,

Your Name

CC: (Names and titles of other people you give copies to)

Please Note: PAVE is a nonprofit organization that provides information, training, individual assistance, and resources. PAVE is not a legal firm or legal service agency, and the information contained in this handout is provided for informing the reviewer and should not be considered as a means of taking the place of legal advice that must be obtained through an attorney. PAVE may be able to assist you in identifying an attorney in your area but cannot provide direct referrals. The contents of this handout were developed under a grant from the US Department of Education. The contents do not represent the policy of the US Department of Education and you should not assume endorsement by the Government.

ESY Helps Students Who Struggle to Maintain Skills and Access FAPE

A Brief Overview

  • Extended School Year (ESY) services help a student with a disability maintain skills in academic and/or functional areas, such as speech/language, occupational therapy, or behavior.
  • Due to COVID-19, the school and family may also discuss Recovery Services when they discuss ESY. A student may be eligible for Recovery Services if they have experienced learning gaps related to the pandemic. Read on for information about differences between ESY and Recovery Services.
  • The Individualized Education Program (IEP) team determines whether a student needs ESY and/or Recovery Services. Family members participate in the decision. PAVE provides an article: Parent Participation in Special Education Process is a Priority Under Federal Law.
  • Services may be provided when school is not normally in session, but not always. Sometimes they are built into the school day. Typically, they are provided during summer. Holiday breaks and after school are options too.
  • Parents can keep notes about any loss of skill during a break from school. By tracking how long it takes to recover a skill, parents can provide data for a discussion about whether additional services are necessary.
  • ESY and Recovery Services are different, and one does not exclude the other. Both are provided at no cost to the family.

Full Article

With summer coming, some parents worry that a child’s progress at school might be erased by the break. Some families may also worry that their child is on the verge of acquiring a new skill and that progress will be disrupted by an extended break. Parents can request a meeting with the Individualized Education Program (IEP) team to review progress and address the concerns. PAVE provides an article with a sample letter to help families request a meeting that isn’t part of the required annual IEP review process.

The team uses existing data and can plan additional evaluations to decide whether the student needs extra instructional time. The student might need supplemental instruction in an academic subject or to maintain a skill in speech/language, occupational therapy, behavior or another area being served through the IEP.

The critical question for the IEP team: Will learning be significantly jeopardized if additional services are not provided?

Extended School Year (ESY) is available for students in special education if there is evidence that without extra instruction they will fall significantly behind in specific skills. Falling behind is formally called regression.

Recovery of skills is called recoupment. A school will provide ESY if regression or likelihood of regression is significant and extra instructional time is needed for recoupment of skills. ESY services help a child maintain skills already being taught and are not provided to teach new skills.

ESY is not the same as summer school

Families often think of ESY as a summer program, but it’s not the same as summer school. A summer-school program might be structured to accommodate a student’s individualized ESY program. ESY and Recovery Services are individualized to serve the needs of a student eligible for special education. The program is structured to fit the student, not the other way around. See PAVE’s video about a student’s right to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE): FAPE Fits Like a Proper Outfit.

ESY is usually provided when school is not normally in session, but not always. The IEP team may decide that the services will be most helpful if built into the school day. ESY also can be provided during holiday breaks or as an extension of the typical school day.

Conversations about ESY can happen any time the IEP team meets to discuss progress and goal-setting. If ESY is determined necessary, the IEP document includes an amendment with specific ESY objectives. When an IEP team determines a child eligible for ESY, the school district alerts parents in a Prior Written Notice (PWN) before implementing ESY. If transportation is needed for delivery of ESY services, the district provides transportation.

ESY is not an enrichment program. It is not provided for credit recovery. It is also not a “compensatory service,” which is provided by the district when a student’s services have not met requirements for a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE).

ESY services might include 1:1 instruction at home, at school or at a district office. A student could also receive ESY as part of “related services” at a provider’s office. (Occupational and speech therapy are examples of related services.) Computer- and home-based learning are additional ESY options. Like all IEP programming, ESY is individualized. Service delivery is designed by the IEP team, and sometimes creative problem-solving is needed.

If the IEP includes ESY services and the family moves during the summer, the new school district is responsible to provide the services as they are designed in the IEP or in a comparable way.

The Washington Administrative Code (WAC) includes information about ESY in sections 392-172A-02020.

How are decisions made about ESY and Recovery Services?

The IEP team decides whether a student requires ESY and/or Recovery Services by meeting to review the student’s program goals and progress. PAVE has an article about goal-tracking. Parents or teachers may have notes about any loss of skill during a past break from school.

By making notes about how long it takes to recover a skill after a break, parents can contribute important data. Sharing that information earlier in the school year is ideal, so there is ample time for a review of data and any additional testing. Attendance information also is helpful because some disabilities create illness conditions that keep a child out of school long enough to fall significantly behind.

The school and family discuss whether the lost skills and extra time required to regain them is likely to create a significant barrier to progress toward IEP goals and learning in the future. This will justify whether recoupment is required to reverse or prevent regression. Those are the key words in ESY decision-making.

The Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF) has an article about ESY and lists the following as evidence that a school might consider:

  • Documented problems with working memory from assessments
  • Demonstrated need for constant reinforcement over time, even during the regular instructional day/year
  • History from a previous year of losing skills and struggling to regain them after a school break
  • Need for constant reinforcement of a behavior support program when a student is at risk of being moved to a more restrictive environment without substantial progress around behavior

How are Recovery Services different?

The term “Recovery Services” was designated by Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) to describe additional special education services for students who lost progress or failed to make appropriate gains in learning because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Like ESY, Recovery Services are designed to meet the needs of individual students and are provided based on an IEP team decision. A difference is that Recovery Services do not follow the same process related to regression and recoupment. The IEP team, which includes family participants, discusses how the pandemic affected the student’s access to learning and opportunities and whether extra services are necessary to get the student back on track.

Here is how Recovery Services are determined through an IEP team discussion:

  • What did the IEP team hope the student would accomplish by now? (Expected progress, skills, and services if there had been no pandemic)
  • What did the student accomplish or access? (Actual progress or regression and services delivered)
  • What is the gap, and how can the team design Recovery Services to fill that gap?

In summary, the goal is to help the student get to where they likely would have been in their learning if there hadn’t been a pandemic.  

State and federal dollars have been allotted to support student recovery, including through the American Rescue Plan. School districts are required to submit a formal plan before accessing these federal funds. Districts have been required to seek public comment and to share their plans publicly. Information about these requirements is described in a publication from OSPI: Academic and Student Well-Being Recovery Plan: Planning Guide 2021 For School Districts, Tribal Compact Schools, and Charter Schools.

OSPI’s guidance provides detail about state requirements for districts to consider social emotional learning, student well-being, and equity issues related to the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on different populations—not just academic recovery.

TIP: Families impacted by trauma, death, or other challenges during the pandemic can review their district’s Recovery Plan and consider whether their student’s needs are being met. If there are concerns, meet with school and district staff to request a more individualized, equitable approach. Needs related to specific losses and trauma can be discussed in the context of an IEP Recovery Services Plan.

For more information and guidance about accessing materials in a language other than English, visit OSPI’s website: Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) Guidance & Resources.

What does LRE have to do with these additional services?

Special Education has Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) as a primary feature. In accordance with the IDEA, a school district is responsible to provide instruction in the least restrictive setting to the maximum extent appropriate.

Accommodations and supports are provided to allow for LRE. Therefore, LRE is part of the school’s obligation to FAPE (Free Appropriate Public Education). For some students, routine is paramount. Parents and teachers can discuss whether a break in routine might jeopardize the student’s ability to remain in their current classroom/placement. If yes, then ESY or Recovery Services might be needed for the student to continue accessing school in the Least Restrictive Environment.

What can parents do if they disagree with the school?

Parents who disagree with school decisions have the right to dispute those decisions. PAVE has an article about Procedural Safeguards and options when families and schools disagree. PAVE also provides a video about how to file a Community Complaint, which is one dispute resolution option.

Which students might be eligible for ESY?

ESY is not mandated for all students with disabilities and is not required for the convenience of the school or a parent who might need respite or daycare. There are no federal regulations on ESY eligibility. DREDF, a parent-information center in Berkeley, Calif., lists standards established by a range of legal rulings:  

  • Regression/Recoupment: Likelihood of regression or anticipating that it will take a long time to get a skill back can make a child eligible for ESY. A student doesn’t have to fully lose a skill or experience a long delay in recovering the skill to qualify.
  • Degree of Progress toward IEP Goals: Very slow progress toward IEP goals can meet criteria for ESY. Trivial progress toward goals does not meet the standard of FAPE, as established by a 2017 supreme court ruling.
  • Nature and/or Severity of Disability: Determination is not limited to a specific category of disability. However, students with more severe disabilities are more likely to be involved in ESY programs because their regression and recoupment time are likely to be greater than students with less severe disabilities.
  • Emerging Skills/Breakthrough Opportunities: If a critical life skill is not completely mastered or acquired, ESY services may ensure that the current level of skill is not lost over a break. A few examples of critical life skills: beginning to communicate, learning to read or write, self-care. 
  • Interfering Behaviors: Some students receive positive behavior support as part of the IEP. When considering ESY, the IEP team would determine whether interruption of such programming would jeopardize the student receiving FAPE.
  • Special Circumstances: Sometimes there are special circumstances that prevent a student from learning within the regular school schedule. Districts have different definitions of what constitutes a special circumstance. Parents can ask for a copy of district policy and refer to WAC 392-172A-02020.

No sole factor determines whether a student qualifies for ESY or Recovery Services. IEP teams review a variety of data, including informed predictions about what is likely to happen in future based on past experiences. A student who has received ESY in a previous year is not automatically entitled to those services again, and a student who wasn’t eligible in the past is not automatically denied.

Summary and Additional Resources

Some students require special education and related services longer than the regular school year in order to receive FAPE. ESY can minimize regression, so a child can catch up or recoup those skills. Parents who have concerns can discuss eligibility criteria with the IEP team. The sooner ESY and/or Recovery Services are discussed, the sooner data can be collected and reviewed. Parent may need time to consider all options and to collaborate with the school.

As part of its Model Forms, the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) provides a downloadable document that IEP teams can fill out and attach to the IEP when a student qualifies for ESY services. To access the PDF directly: Extended School Year (ESY) addendum.

A website called Great Schools.org provides additional information about ESY and downloadable forms about IDEA requirements.

Wrightslaw.com provides information about the IDEA and legal findings on a variety of topics.