The Intersection

Supporting Innovation in Education Webinar Recap | Equitable Education for Students with Disabilities

February 10, 2021

Panelists discussed the unique needs of students with disabilities, the challenges and opportunities of meeting those needs during times of disrupted and remote learning, and ways in which philanthropists are working to ensure that students with disabilities are supported.


“Students with disabilities perform better when there are high expectations and they are not segregated or excluded from the classroom.”

-Michael Yudin, Principal of the Raben Group


Michael Yudin reminded attendees that the pandemic has hit students with disabilities really hard. He noted that when students receive instruction below grade level and do not have proper supports in place, it does a disservice to the future workforce. The pandemic has also created daunting public health and economic challenges, which are exacerbated by long standing racial inequities. By not receiving special education services they are entitled to, many children with disabilities are falling through the cracks. Yudin noted the challenges in summoning the political will to implement solutions to better meet the needs of students with disabilities.


“We see the transformation that calls for the now and next set of arcs in science, learning development, equality, and community leadership. We cannot be strong and healthy as a nation when not all young people can learn, develop and thrive in all educational settings.”

-Dr. Gisele Shorter, Program Officer of Education for the Raikes Foundation


Dr. Gisele Shorter shared the Raikes Foundation’s commitment to being just and equitable for students. She noted that we need to put a premium on the school system and the commitment to doing what evidence and research makes abundantly clear — that young people’s social and emotional development is intricately connected to access and opportunity. Student success should be determined by developmental and academic outcomes, not their individual needs and starting place. The vision of the Raikes Foundation ensures the overall wellbeing of all young people, with any social-cultural marker, with zero predictive markers over what a school should reliably produce. In this moment, society can build durable education systems to ensure that each child survives and thrives. Dr. Shorter said there must be a shift in the system’s ability to produce positive whole child outcomes. Dynamic strategies can help schools better deploy resources for the young people who have been underserved by the system.


“We know that social and emotional development is intrinsically connected to academic learning. During this time, our families are experiencing a lot of trauma. We know that these issues are more important than ever. We are trying to figure out how to use our data and priorities to get really clear. We have been focusing on the fact that we need to ensure that students feel physically and emotionally safe in their classrooms and with their teachers. We need to support them in building their skills with effort. We are finding ways to support feelings of students that come up since there is a strong association with academic success. We are thinking about the role we can play so that schools create student-centered learning environments.”

-Frances Messano, Senior Managing Partner of NewSchools Venture Fund


Frances Messano discussed how the NewSchools Venture Fund supports teams of educators who seek to reimagine learning and create a new path forward. They support new, innovative schools, the development of learning solutions that better support existing schools, and diverse leadership to close opportunity gaps. Leadership needs to reflect the background and representation of all students. NewSchools is launching a new portfolio that focuses solely on racial equity. The venture wants to focus on innovation, equity, and an expanded view of success. Students need to be equipped with skills that can propel them in life and enable them to realize their dreams. She noted that student outcomes should not be determined by the color of their skin or where they live. There are practices that benefit all students, especially students with learning disabilities, so school models and changes require equity. There are interesting and creative ways in allocating resources to help meet the needs of students with disabilities. Students and parents should be viewed as assets, with school models designed with their needs front and center. Leaders and districts should consider the intersecting systems and the range of support that exists. They should emphasize relationship-building with students and their families.


“We focus on students who have learning differences and experiences further marginalized due to race and poverty…we see educational equality as providing environments for students so they have a sense of belonging and purpose in school and where they have agency on decisions that affect them.”

-Julie Kowal, Program Officer of the Oak Foundation


Julie Kowal described the Oak Foundation’s focus on K-12 students, partners, and organizations. The Foundation supports students with learning disabilities such as dyslexia, dysgraphia and processing issues. The Foundation focuses on building knowledge and translating it into practice to build more equitable environments and influence systems to adopt and embrace supports for students. In partnership with the Austin Institute, the Oak Foundation identifies and supports partners in their adoption of policy and practice from the Standards and Accountability Movement. The pandemic has informed the community on what schools and districts value, not simply in the measurement of what students with disabilities can do. Due to the pandemic, schools should significantly rethink how they prioritize partnerships. Schools need to consider how they can empower the parents and caregivers of children with disabilities. Partnerships in learning should be built in respect and responsiveness to what students need.

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