How iLEAD Schools Set the Standard for Online Special Education
During the pandemic and distance learning, many schools have struggled to give their most vulnerable learners the accommodations they need. However, iLEAD Schools continue to model support for all learners, including learners with disabilities, in very personalized and successful ways.
According to iLEAD Director of Student Support Amber Rogers-Jones, the organization has been working on the best distance learning model to provide special education accommodations since 2015, when they opened their large homeschool program, iLEAD Exploration.
Meeting the Challenge
Rogers-Jones said she and her team have been making special education accessible for homeschoolers online for years. “We had to find a way to make it work,” Rogers-Jones said. “It’s not about my convenience or preference but what’s best for them.”
Rogers-Jones and her team wanted an online special education platform that would be both interactive and engaging. Although Zoom became familiar to most in the spring of 2019, Rogers-Jones said that iLEAD Special Education began using it as their dominant online platform in 2017.
“We became experienced Zoom users long before COVID,” Rogers-Jones said. “And now the special education facilitators and leaders have been helping the rest of the education team become proficient with Zoom.”
Ultimately, the team’s problem-solving and learners-first approach drive everything, according to Rogers-Jones.
“I was attracted to iLEAD because of the team’s genuine concern for all learners,” she said. “iLEAD’s values prompt us to ask not whether we can do it but how we can do it.”
Why iLEAD’s Approach Works
iLEAD’s authentic commitment to all learners empowers the staff to deliver effective special education services, whether online or face-to-face, according to Rogers-Jones. The success of their approach was evidenced when COVID hit and the Student Support team stepped in to assist all the facilitators who were accustomed to offering only site-based support.
“We started seeing how the site-based programs needed additional help and could learn from the online community about the procedures,” Rogers-Jones said. “Our focus was to ensure that not one learner was left behind.”
Seeing the online veterans partner with site-based staff reminded Rogers-Jones and others why iLEAD’s professional learning culture is so effective. “It’s first and foremost the human power. It’s the staff and the people that make it happen,” Rogers-Jones said. “Secondly, we have a system in place. Third, we have a culture that supports this.”
What Makes iLEAD Successful
Rogers-Jones identified several factors that help iLEAD successfully accommodate all learners. For example, special education services are provided in-house, the organization focuses on every individual learner and social-emotional learning is foundational to the learning experience.
“We emphasize what’s best for the one, not what’s best for all,” Rogers-Jones said. “We focus on engagement and creating the least restrictive environment.”
Examples include the iLEAD approach to Individualized Education Programs (IEPs), according to Rogers-Jones. She said that far too often nationwide, IEPs are written in very general terms to fit a type of student. However, Rogers-Jones said iLEAD takes the “individualized” in Individualized Education Programs very seriously.
Additionally, the focus on social-emotional learning is an integral part of how the iLEAD team approaches everything, according to Rogers-Jones. “Learners who need special education accommodations are potentially the most prone to become disconnected and disengaged and suffer from depression or isolation. So, especially now, we have to create these opportunities to connect,” Rogers-Jones said. “We always want our learners to feel connected and supported.”
In an effort to support the entire learning team, including parents and family, the Student Support team reflects on this driving question: “How are we empowering both the learner and their support team, including parents and family?”
Rogers-Jones shared that their Student Support website has many additional support resources, such as webinars, positive interventions, reading strategies for parents and much more. Their team also provides weekly consultations and additional learning resources, such as virtual field trips and more.
Another important aspect of this effort is the ongoing training of all staff, according to Student Support Coordinator Kaitlin Tuxhorn. This includes case management and IEP development, tools and resources that best support learners with disabilities, as well as information specific to each role within Student Support, according to Tuxhorn.
“Our training website has really helped streamline our training process with returning and new staff this school year, especially with everyone working remotely,” Tuxhorn said. “It’s nice to have everything in one place that you can go back to at any point and will be useful even when returning in person.”
At iLEAD Exploration, Care Team member and facilitator Elizabeth Vombauer said that while the pandemic has brought about challenges for many, iLEAD learners, facilitators, leaders, parents and community members know how to persevere.
“Very uniquely, we already had a team of teachers who were experts at providing special education online. While other schools may struggle through the ins and outs of online learning, iLEAD stands out as masters of online special education,” Vombauer said. “iLEAD provides by far the best experience — with the most success — I’ve ever seen.”