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IEP Perspectives: Breaking the Stigma & Gaining Understanding in Newark

By KIPP New Jersey

At KIPP Newark, all of our  teammates are committed to supporting every student that enters their classrooms and partnering with families on that journey. Our special educators provide additional support to students with IEPs by collaborating with classroom teachers and providing direct instruction to students with disabilities. By combining their expertise, knowledge, and dedication, our families and staff enable students to reach a high bar— and never feel embarrassed about receiving the support they need to get there.

We spoke to a KIPP Newark alumnus, a special education teacher, and a parent about their experiences navigating IEPs and the advice they’d share about breaking the stigma and supporting students with learning disabilities to become lifelong learners.

Tianna Robinson 
Learning Specialist
KIPP Newark Community Prep

As a learning specialist at KIPP Newark Community Prep, I support middle school students with learning disabilities achieve their full potential and grow as learners and people. I want to get to know my students beyond any specific disability they may have and understand who they are and how they learn.

I believe that being transparent about a child’s disability can help them become better self-advocates and more empowered learners. I often meet with students in small groups, so first we talk about what their goals look like for the year. Over time, I’ll start explaining that a learning disability means that a person acquires knowledge differently than other students, but that they’re just as capable of learning and excelling. By the end of the year, students are often able to connect the dots and articulate their disability to others, whether they have ADHD, a physical disability that impacts learning, or are on the autism spectrum.

I’ve learned that close partnerships with families are also vital to student success. I meet regularly with families and during IEP meetings they help us draft their child’s goals, often alongside students. This family-driven approach is personal to me—my brother has ADHD and is in 8th grade this year. One thing I’m supporting my mom with is understanding that his IEP comes with parental rights! She needs to understand those rights and so do our families. Communication and transparency with families, grounded in a belief that learning disabilities are nothing to be embarrassed about will help all of our students set and achieve their goals!

Vivian Melendez
Parent, KIPP Newark Community Prep

My daughter is a seventh grader at KIPP Newark Community Prep and has struggled with reading comprehension, which also translates over to math work. Before she joined KIPP as a fifth grader, it was difficult to get her the support she needed. In fourth grade, she was finally diagnosed with a learning disability and was able to access additional resources.

When her reading struggles first came up, we did lots of different things to support her — including extra tutoring, Kumon, extracurriculars, but she still would struggle with things like completing her homework. When she got into NCP, they zoned in on what she was struggling with and made a plan for her IEP. It was such a weight off my shoulders as a parent to have a strong support system in place; I wanted to cry!

My advice to other families whose students have an IEP is to communicate with teachers! Ms. Robinson is always there for us and we check in through text or email if any issues come up. I also try to empower my daughter to advocate for herself and her learning. I say, “Ask five questions about a subject if that’s what it takes for you to understand it!” When you first start off with an IEP, there’s paperwork and it can feel overwhelming. But as a parent, it’s important to understand your child’s needs throughout the process and ask questions. I tell my daughter to not listen to anyone who might make her feel embarrassed about her IEP. Today, she’s getting A’s and B’s and I’m so proud of her progress!

Michael N’Tifo 
KIPP Newark Collegiate Academy, Class of 2018
Lycoming College, Class of 2022

I grew up in Newark and attended district schools for elementary and most of middle school. In 8th grade, I enrolled at KIPP TEAM Academy. When I started at TEAM, I was concerned that I wasn’t on the same level as the other kids, since I didn’t attend KIPP directly after elementary school and I knew from my cousin that the bar there was high. The transition was tough, I had to take placement tests and take more intensive classes for support. I just felt like my previous school failed me.

Fortunately, TEAM was especially accommodating to my individual needs and offered me small group instruction and other support that helped me grow my reading skills. In high school at KIPP Newark Collegiate Academy, I knew my KIPP teachers really cared about my education and me as a person. They always took my IEP into consideration, helped me learn to write concise papers, offered audiobooks for difficult texts, and made modified handouts that were easier for me to understand. I’ve acquired lifelong mentors like Ms. Okoye and also friends who help me succeed.

At Lycoming College,  the curriculum was rigorous and unfortunately I felt like my college professors didn’t take my IEP as seriously as they should have, because the accommodations were inconsistent. My learning disability impacted my choice of major, and I wound up pursuing criminal justice because it was less reading-heavy and a way for me to support my community, which is important to me.

My drive to succeed in college led me to reach back out to my KIPP NJ family. My former teachers and KIPP Forward counselor, Ciera Martinez, always helped me if I needed academic support or struggled with mental health. I knew I could go to them for help and they would come through for me. If I had to give any advice to current KIPP students navigating an IEP it would be to always ask for help, always advocate for yourself, and never be scared to speak up about your needs. You shouldn’t be afraid of your IEP nor embarrassed by it. If anything, you should embrace it.

If you believe your child could benefit from special education service, please reach out to your school’s Assistant Principal of Special Education or your child’s teacher. 

KIPP NCA alumnus and KIPP NJ summer marketing intern Alexis Conde contributed to this piece.