What is a disability?

A disability is an impairment that interferes with a child's ability to learn. In general, the term "disabled" is used to describe a child who has mental, physical or emotional impairments that affect his or her ability to learn. To qualify for special education services in school, a student's impairment must also meet the definition of a disability under special education laws. It is important to recognize that having a disability does not mean that a child isn't smart or can't learn. It simply means that he or she needs special instruction or extra help in certain areas.

What is Special Education?

Some children have a mental, physical or emotional disability that makes it difficult for them to learn in the traditional public school settings offered in their communities. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is the federal law that holds school districts legally responsible for providing special education programs to ensure that these children are given an opportunity to access the free and appropriate public education they are entitled to by law. Special education programs (known as Individualized Education Plans or IEPs) include a wide range of accommodations to meet the child's needs.

Who is eligible for Special Education?

The child you are caring for may already have an IEP. If that is the case, it is important for you to understand the disability the child has and the support services the school has in place to meet the child's needs and ensure that he or she is able to access the school curriculum. There are 13 eligibility categories under IDEA. If the child you are caring for does not have an IEP but you believe he or she may need one, contact the FYS Program Coordinator about initiating the assessment process.

How to Initiate a Special Education Assessment

Step 1: Request that the child be assessed for a disability.

Anyone who knows the child well can request that he or she be evaluated for a disability. These requests are best made in writing with some specific reasons why you believe the child should be evaluated. Often, school districts prefer to hold Student Study Team (SST) meetings prior to assessing a child. An SST is a meeting where teachers, caregivers, and others can discuss the challenges (and successes) the child is having and propose some regular education resources that may alleviate the problems. SSTs can be productive; however, there is no legal requirement to hold an SST before assessing a child.

Step 2: The district sends an assessment plan to the educational rights holder (more on educational decision making below).

Once an assessment request is made, the school district has 15 days to either provide an assessment plan or deny the request. If the district denies the request, you have the right to challenge the decision.

Step 3: The Education Rights Holder (ERH) consents to the district's assessment plan.

The assessment plan will include a number of evaluation areas (for example, Language/Speech Development and Social/Emotional/Adaptive/Behavior). The district will only evaluate the areas which have a check in the corresponding box. If you believe that the district has not identified all of the appropriate evaluation areas, contact the district representative who sent the assessment plan. If you are satisfied with the proposed assessment plan, sign it and send it back to the district representative. The district will have 60 days to complete the assessment and hold a meeting to discuss the results of the assessment. If the child is found to be eligible for special education, the district will present, at this initial meeting, an outline of what your child's Individualized Education Plan (IEP) will consist of - in other words, what modifications they are proposing to better serve your child in light of their newly identified disability. Their proposed plan is not final, and this initial IEP meeting will give you an opportunity to shape your child's IEP. The IEP will not be implemented until the educational rights holder signs the document. Once they do, the IEP should go into effect immediately. If, after the assessment, the district determines that the child is not eligible for special education, they will discuss this finding. 

What is an Individualized Education Plan (IEP)?

An IEP is a document that spells out the specific services a child with a disability needs in order to access the free public education they are entitled to by law. An IEP is legally binding, which means that the contents of the program must be followed by the school. The IEP is developed at the child's initial IEP meeting, and annually thereafter, by a team that includes, at minimum, a child's parent or educational representative, a general education teacher, a special education teacher, a district representative, and anyone else who the parent or district thinks would contribute to the meeting. In many circumstances, the student should be in attendance, but it may be wise to hold part of the meeting with only the adults in the room. An IEP can only be implemented when the educational rights holder agrees to the content of the IEP and signs it. There are many components of an IEP but here are some of the most important that will be described in the IEP document:

  • The student's present level of educational performance, including how the child's disability affects their involvement and progress in a regular education setting.

  • Measurable annual goals (and short-term objectives) related to a child's disability-related needs and methods of evaluating whether the goals are being met.

  • Specific education services, supports, aids, and modifications that the school will provide to the child to reach their goals and progress in the general education setting.

  • The type of school placement needed to implement the IEP in the "least restrictive environment" possible.

When are IEP meetings held?

A meeting to review and update a child's IEP must be held annually and a child is to be reassessed every three years. The child's educational rights holder can request an IEP meeting whenever they feel one is necessary, to review goals, to modify the IEP, and so on. The district can either hold one or respond in writing why they don't feel one is not necessary. When a child is moved to a new school, the new school is bound by law to implement the program described in the child's previous IEP and hold an interim IEP within 30 days. 

Appropriate Educational Placement

Consider the following in order to determine appropriate educational placement:

  • Placement decisions shall be made to ensure each foster youth has the same opportunities educationally that all students have, including least restrictive placement, and access to the academic resources, services, extracurricular and enrichment activities as all other pupils.

  • Ask the school or previous school if your child has a 504 Plan, extensive discipline records, current expulsion from school, grade report and attendance report. This information is valuable in determining what school program might best serve your child.

Educational Settings Glossary

Traditional or Mainstream

This setting is often referred to by students as a "regular" or "normal" school. If the child you are working with does not have a disability (and, for high school students, is not significantly behind in attaining credits), they will most likely receive their education in a traditional school offered by their school district of residence.

Resource Specialist Program (RSP)

When a child has a disability and is eligible for special education, they will often receive some or all of their instruction with more support than the general education setting provides. A special education student with an RSP designation will spend up to half of the school day (but usually less) in a small class setting, receiving help from the RSP teacher to complete assignments and understand material from the general education classes they are enrolled in. Less frequently, students will receive instruction on material not covered in their general education from the RSP teacher. It is very common for special education students to participate in an RSP at the traditional school they attend.

Special Day Class (SDC)

Special day classes serve students who, because of their disabilities, cannot participate in general education classes for a majority of the day. SDC often consists of a very small number of students and is located on the general education sites. As appropriate, students enrolled in special day classes will attend some general education classes as appropriate. SDC students will also interact with their general education peers through non-academic and extracurricular activities.

Therapeutic Day School/County Specialty Programs/Therapeutic Support Programs

For a child to be considered for placement in a Therapeutic Day School they must be eligible for mental health services under AB 3632 (Chapter 26.5) and have exhibited extreme difficulty in participating in less restrictive special education placements. Therapeutic day schools offer integrated special education and mental health services to adolescents at risk of failure because of social, emotional, or learning difficulties.

Nonpublic Schools (NPS)

California Education Code defines a nonpublic school as a “private, nonpublic, nonsectarian school that enrolls individuals with exceptional needs pursuant to an Individualized Education Program (IEP)”. Children are only placed in nonpublic schools if they have a valid IEP requiring placement at an NPS or the educational rights holder consents to an NPS placement. Nonpublic schools are only to be used when the district has no public program that can meet the child's needs.

Community School

Community Schools serve 6th to 12th grade students who are considered at-risk, including students who have been expelled, or for whom districts have run out of interventions. Typically, youth remain at these schools for a semester or up to a year. In rare cases, youth will remain at these schools for longer than a year. Community Schools are considered schools of last resort. Community school programs are intended to have low student-teacher ratios, attempt to close the skills gap, focus on pro-social skills, self-esteem, and resiliency. Upon admission, students take a basic adult skills test and an individual learning plan is created. For high school students, community schools offer credit recovery. Accumulating credits tends to be the focus of both teachers and students at community schools, in addition to getting them on the right track. Students are most often referred to a community school by another school or district, but a parent or guardian can request placement and there is a district-level referral process as well. 

Court Schools

El Dorado County’s Blue Ridge Court School is located at the Juvenile Hall and Treatment Center in South Lake Tahoe. Like community schools, the court school’s programs are focused on attaining credits and improving outcomes for this high-risk population. The court school is operated by the El Dorado County Office of Education.