Dealing with one individualized education plan (IEP) is enough to make just about anyone’s head spin. But that’s nothing for Donnalyn Jaque-Antón.

As associate superintendent for the division of special education at the Los Angeles Unified School District, Jaque-Antón oversees more than 82,000 special education students.

In a frank interview with Disability Scoop Jaque-Antón gives you the skinny on what the IEP process is like for those on the other side of the table. And she offers insider advice on what you can do to ensure the best results for the student you care about.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Disability Scoop: What have you learned from dealing with such a large volume of students?

Donnalyn Jaque-Antón: I would say a couple of things. We need to demystify the entire IEP process so that it’s comprehensible to the parents as well as the staff. We need to make clear what it is we’re trying to do and how it benefits the student. Then, the second thing is to ensure that we have the right players at the IEP team meeting including knowledgeable parents. Then, of course we need to monitor to see that what we’ve recommended is bringing results.

I find that for a lot of the parents in this district, we tend to make this too complicated. A lot of times educators talk education language and not ordinary English or Spanish or whatever language it is.

Disability Scoop: What would you tell a parent if you were to simplify the process for them?

Donnalyn Jaque-Antón: As a parent one of the things that I’d want to know is, okay, you’re talking with me about speech and language, but tell me what you expect. Will my child need speech and language for the rest of their life? There are a lot of common sense questions that need to be answered for parents. When you encounter this idea that your child has a special need, it’s all over the board. It goes from mild to kids needing specific supports and services for the rest of their school career. I think educators need to come down and center it around the child and say here’s what we found out and here’s the way that we think special education supports can help your child be successful in the core curriculum.

We have a booklet that we give out and a video. The video is called “The IEP and You” (view in English or Spanish) and it really helps the parents walk through the process. My feeling is that every parent should be given the video before they go into an IEP and they should watch it. It walks through what you can expect what when you come into an IEP.

Special education in some places has become a business where the child is not always at the center. I think it’s important to bring it back to the child and say, the most important people to understand are the parents, the student and the people who are going to work with the student to implement this, so let’s make it comprehensible.

Disability Scoop: How much does your district spend per special education student? And how do you weigh financial constraints with the often pricey needs of students with disabilities?

Donnalyn Jaque-Antón: It generally is about double what we spend on a non-special education student. I would say probably about $12,000 or $13,000 per student on average annually.

We have two items that are large ticket that are not always necessary. One is what we call the adult assistants, or one-to-ones, which I feel are not always the best thing for students after a certain point. The other is transportation. Other than that, if I can get results, I’m happy. For example, we run a program for autistic students where we integrate all of the related services into the classroom. It’s a relatively expensive program, but it works so much better. So if I can get the results, then I don’t mind the expense. It’s when services are added on that are not designed to bring the results in the way they’re delivered, when a student is stacked up in isolation, that you have to watch the cost. But generally, we don’t consider cost at an IEP meeting. We do consider such things as the one-to-ones and lack of independence. How does a student eventually fade that service? How do we teach certain kinds of self-management skills at a certain age?

Disability Scoop: From a school district standpoint, what do you do to prepare for an IEP?

Donnalyn Jaque-Antón: Our IEPs are all Web-based so the data that’s in the current IEP as well as the assessment data is shared. That means the entire team should be looking in advance. I always say to parents, at least in our district you can ask for the data five days in advance.

I don’t think the IEP is where everything happens. I think it is a culminating place where we codify things but I think the parents need to be in constant contact with the school about what kind of growth the child is and is not making and what kind of change needs to happen. I see too many people wait — both schools and parents — and see the IEP as the be-all, end-all and where everything tries to get decided and I don’t think that’s right. If you see that something is not working in the behavior support plan then I think you need to go to the school and say I’m noticing that whatever x,y or z is happening. The same thing with the teacher. Let the parent know what’s happening.

When it comes to IEP meetings, I think parents should come in not only with what they “want” but also with a whole host of questions if they haven’t had a chance to have them answered. For example, after so many weeks or so many months of this type of service, what should I expect? How often will my child get this service? Those kinds of things. And again I would encourage those questions to be asked all along, not only at the IEP.

Disability Scoop: What do you bring to an IEP meeting and what should parents bring?

Donnalyn Jaque-Antón: We teach the parents how to put together a notebook on their child. We tell them to include the previous IEPs, conversations they’ve held, work samples, notes they’ve received, things the child is doing at home. Sometimes we encourage parents to keep a diary or log about how the child behaves at home, triggers that create bad behavior or good behavior so that it can be a joint working experience and parents can share strategies with the school. I think that’s extremely important. The parents have a lot to say to the IEP team. It’s not just about what I want, but it’s let me help you get to know my child entirely, not just what they see in a school setting.

Disability Scoop: If you’re a parent and there is something that you believe a school district should provide, what is the best way to go about it?

Donnalyn Jaque-Antón: I always say to people, you need to start at the school level where they work with your child directly. The first thing is to go to the teacher and say I’ve been noticing that x,y and z has been happening. Do you think we need to sit down and revise the behavior support plan? You start at the most informal method that you can get the change or the support provided and sometimes it will go up the chain to have an amendment to the IEP. But sometimes it’s something that can simply be inserted in the IEP. So I always say, do it as informally as possible. Go through informal dispute resolutions at the school level. That should be the level at which they’re really trying to meet the needs of the student, the most responsive. Once you deal with mediation, they’re looking at things in a little bit different view. It’s a little bit more adversarial. It, to me, leaves a bad taste if you’re going to have to work together. It doesn’t mean that we don’t do due process, but to me wherever things can be worked out at the lowest level, at the school level, it’s better.

Disability Scoop: How can you avoid becoming adversarial?

Donnalyn Jaque-Antón: Try saying things like, I believe my child needs or have you noticed? Let’s look at the behavior together. Let’s look at x, y and z together as opposed to coming in and saying, you know, I think I’d like a behaviorist for 45 hours a week or whatever it may be. I don’t think it’s about asking for a particular service or support so much as it is looking at what we can do because something has happened or something is not happening that should be happening. I think that’s the way you should start.

Disability Scoop: From your perspective, what are the biggest mistakes that parents make?

Donnalyn Jaque-Antón: I love it when the parents are really knowledgeable and are there to participate as partners. I would say one of the hardest challenges, not a mistakes, is they either don’t arm themselves with enough knowledge about what the disability is or arm themselves with lots of knowledge and they want to dictate.

We see this as a partnership. We want the parents to be knowledgeable. We want to know what goes on in the home. We want to know that parents are doing other things besides what the school district is providing their child. That’s important whether the child has a disability or not. Don’t assume that you shouldn’t know anything and the school will dictate. Also don’t assume the opposite — that you know everything and you will dictate. Come in as a real partner to try to work with the school to deliver what your child needs.

The second thing for me is this idea that more services always equal more progress. I’m not sure that’s true. You have to build a program for a student that’s integrated and solid and sound but if you are layering on a whole host of services where the student never gets a chance to be integrated, it’s quite a serious thing. More is not always better. Integrated and put together is better and meaningful to the student.

Parents have to find that right balance in dealing with schools, even if you don’t have a student with a disability. Be assertive but also be willing to partner with the school. I think it’s important especially when you leave your kids in the hands of the school personnel to be able to trust them.

Disability Scoop: Can you give us some examples of parents you’ve seen who’ve been particularly successful at striking that balance?

Donnalyn Jaque-Antón: I have a number of parents who are politically active. They speak up, but they try to work not just on behalf of their own child, but for the good of all the children. If there’s a problem at the school that goes beyond their own child — let’s say there’s a teacher that is not as good as others — what I’ve found is that there are some parents who will alert not only the principal but others to say, hey maybe you need to send someone in to help do some behavior management in that classroom. So although it’s affecting my kid, we look at it in a different way, how it’s affecting all kids. So these are the really good, good parents. They do it in a way where they aren’t trying to blow the whistle, but they what all kids to be accepted.

Disability Scoop: What do you do if a student is not progressing? How do you determine success?

Donnalyn Jaque-Antón: We do have a lot of data collection, curriculum based measures as well as checklists and other types of things. Certainly in terms of the behavior, it’s very obvious if something is working and academic the same way. I believe that good teachers do constant curriculum based measurement to show the progress of a student. Some of them in our more severe classes keep logs everyday.

You always have to look at how can I draw back the progress to the particular strategy that we were using? Did it get implemented? Did it get implemented fully? Where was the disconnect? And then you have to adjust for that. That should be with all kids, but especially with kids with disabilities. It makes me crazy when people continue to do the same things and they’re not getting results.

Disability Scoop: You spoke before about having a knowledgeable, good IEP team. Is there anything that a parent can do to make sure that their IEP team is the best that it can be?

Donnalyn Jaque-Antón: I think they can always ask in advance who will be part of their IEP team. They have a right obviously to know who their IEP team will be. And if they have a particular concern about let’s say, assistive technology, they can always request that someone be there who has knowledge about assistive technology even if they don’t know this particular child. So I think parents need to be much more actively involved in who’s at their IEP team meeting. They don’t need people just by title, but by what they know.

Disability Scoop: In your experience, what makes an IEP lead to a successful outcome?

Donnalyn Jaque-Antón: Number one that there’s a lot of data on the child. There’s a clear understanding of what it is we’re going to assign in terms of services and supports and how it relates to reaching the goals. We also need to make sure that the research supports that what we’re going to do with this disability has some evidence of past successes.

We need realistic expectation on all parts. It takes time to see progress with students with disabilities. Plot it out on the timeline so that we know what to expect.

There needs to be an understanding of what everyone’s role is. What is the parent’s role? What is the teacher’s role? What is the aide’s role? What are the administrator’s roles? What is really going to be happening? I like to encourage parents to visit the classroom so that they can see what is really happening.

An IEP is not just about getting what you want. An IEP is about feeling that everyone has contributed to assigning what is appropriate for a student with a disability and then going forward and working on it and seeing if it truly is working. Nothing is perfect from the outset. We want everyone to work together to help that student.

There are times when the school is not acting appropriately. There are times when a parent is not acting appropriately, but we’ve got to come together to benefit the student. A good IEP is one that doesn’t have to be horrendously long but it is centered around what is best for the child. Not what I want — the adult principal or teacher or parent — but what do we think, looking at the data, will benefit the child. That’s really what it’s meant to be.

Read all of Disability Scoop’s original series Scoop Essentials. Your Life. Your Issues. Your World.