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The IEP process can leave English language learners and their families with lots of questions. But the more families know about the purpose of IEPs, the more involved they can be in getting their child the best support.

In this episode, we speak with Juliana Urtubey. Juliana is a special education teacher. She was named the 2021 National Teacher of the Year. Listen as Juliana explains:

  • Challenges English language learners face during the IEP process

  • Why culturally responsive IEPs are important

  • And ways parents can actively participate in supporting their child

Related resources

Episode transcript

Julian: Welcome to "The Opportunity Gap." Kids of color who have ADHD and other common learning differences often face a double stigma. On this show, we talk with parents and experts and offer tips to help you advocate for your child. My name is Julian Saavedra. I'm a father of two and an assistant principal in Philadelphia, where I've spent nearly 20 years working in public schools. I'll be your host. 

Hey OG family, we are back with an incredible new episode. I'm so, so hyped for this one. This has been a long time coming, so I'm just really happy. Today, we're really taking a deep dive into understanding IEPs for English language learners. To talk us through this conversation, we have a very special guest, Juliana Urtubey. Juliana is a special education bilingual teacher. She was named the 2021 National Teacher of the Year. Y'all heard that, right? Not state, this is National Teacher of the Year, and rightfully so. 

And in 2022, President Biden appointed her to the President's Advisory Commission on Advancing Educational Equity, Excellence, and Economic Opportunity for Hispanics. Welcome to the show, my good old friend Juliana. How's it going? 

Juliana: Hi, Julian. Thank you for having me. I'm excited to be here. 

Julian: You know, it's been a minute since we've gotten a chance to connect, but I've been a big-time cheerleader for your work from afar, and now up close. So, I'm just really excited that you chose to join us and talk through some of this. 

Juliana: Well, I have to tell you, I'm a big fan of "Opportunity Gap." I teach teacher residence, and we're frequently tapping into the podcast episodes just to have a wider, more holistic lens. So, I appreciate the work you're doing. 

Julian: Awesome, awesome. So, Juliana, one of the things that we always start out the podcast with is just asking folks, you know, reflecting on their day, what brought you joy today?

Juliana: That's a great question, I love that. Yeah. So, I live in Arizona and we have this tree called the palo verde — it's native to this region — and when it starts getting real hot, the tree just fills up with these tiny yellow flowers and it gets a little bit windy and the flowers fall down and it kind of looks like snow and ends up leaving a bright yellow blanket underneath the trees. And so that's currently happening right now. And it just gives me so much joy to take a moment, go outside, and watch these little flowers fall, and just enjoy the beautiful colors of the desert. 

Julian: I love it, I love it, it makes me think for me, when I first met you, you had just finished creating a garden for your students. And, you know, we talked a lot about gardening and the joy that nature brings in. And today, my children, eight and ten-year-olds, they came with me to get all of our stuff to start our garden, right? Because it's early spring, and so we're getting ready to put our seeds in. The three sisters: corns, beans, and squash. And we got some kale. We have four different types of tomatoes. 

And, you know, the kids are just so excited because they now know what to do. And it was just really joyful to see that now they got to pick themselves instead of Dad having to do it all on his own. So, I feel that nature vibe. It just, it brings so much joy to all of us.

Juliana: Yeah. For sure. 

Julian: So, Juliana, can you share what your teaching journey is all about? Tell us how you got to this point. 

Juliana: Yeah, I'm gonna take you way back, because I think so much of who we are as educators is informed by our life experiences. So, I was born in Bogotá, Colombia. I came to the United States with my family when I was about five. I'm the youngest of three, so I think I had the easiest out of my sisters and I, in terms of learning English and just figuring out how to navigate this, you know, this new country. And then growing up, my parents always really valued us speaking Spanish. 

So, at home we only spoke Spanish. In fact, it feels odd and strange to speak to my parents or my tías in any other language besides Spanish. And I always had to navigate this world between home and school, and it was almost like I was two different people. And in fact, my name is Laura Juliana. 

And that school, all through school until high school, I was Laura. And then it wasn't until college that I was like, nobody in my family calls me Laura. Not even Laura, Laura. I, my name is Juliana. And I had kind of that autonomy to really name myself, right? To tell people this is who I am. I'm Juliana. 

So, when it came time to decide, you know, what I wanted to do with my life, there was an obvious answer, and that was being a teacher. I wanted to become a teacher because I wanted a bridge culture, language, and school for kids like me. First-generation Latino students like me. And so, I very quickly got into bilingual general education. And there I am doing my student teaching. 

And in my student teaching class, there's a student who is bilingual and brilliant, and he can read and spell about five words. And I'm like, what's going on? This kid is so smart. How did this happen? How do you get to fifth grade and not have those resources afforded to you? 

And I quickly went into the world of special education. And that's why I became a special education teacher. And I loved being able to teach in English and in Spanish. I haven't always taught at bilingual schools, but I've always brought my bilingual self to all the schools. 

I love teaching kids with learning and thinking differences. I think that it is the absolute joy of my career to teach a child how to read, to teach a child how to be confident and like who they are. And I love to be able to do that with communities that mirror mine. 

Julian: I love that, I love that, you know, the crux of your journey it really was informed by your identity. I feel like that's this unifying thing. So many of us jump into this because of our past experiences. So, here you are. You know, you are a bilingual special education teacher doing your thing. You are also the host of a podcast, Season 3 of "Understood Explains." Can you tell us all about that show? 

Juliana: Yeah, look, it has been so exciting to learn about the world of podcasts. It was something new to me, so I got to be a learner. But I'll tell you the other name of the podcast, it's "Understood. Explica." This podcast is available in English and in Spanish and it's not translated. We actually recorded separate episodes in English and in Spanish to be able to speak directly to the hearts of families, learning to navigate the special education process, right? 

For me, it was a huge point of pride to help create a resource to a very overlooked and underserved community, which is the Latino community, particularly first-generation Latinos who, you know, maybe on their journey of learning English, but they're more comfortable in Spanish, and we don't have enough resources in schools to support those families, let alone to guide them through the special education process. 

So, these episodes really go from, does your child need an IEP? What's an IEP? What's a 504? What are some common goals that you might see in IEPs? How do we accommodate students? What do you do if you disagree with the school? How do you advocate for your child? How do you collaborate with the team so that you can best serve your child, right? What happens if your child has behavior challenges? 

All of these things just kind of broken down and explained in really transparent language, welcoming language, where we all acknowledge we're learners in this process, and it invites families to feel more comfortable, more included, and more confident in understanding what services and resources might be best for their children. 

You know, as teachers we're constantly told, "Meet your students where they are. Have an asset mindset about your students." But as educators, we don't spend enough time and energy and resources on extending that mindset to their families and the communities of our students. 

Julian: Yeah. 

Juliana: You can't apply an asset mindset to just a student and expect them to succeed if we're not also embracing their families and their communities, right? Instead of saying, "Oh, you have to learn English to gain access," now, we can have the capacity to provide resources in the language that you feel the most comfortable in. And yeah, I'm proud to be part of that work. 

Julian: Exactly. So, let's talk about IEPs for English language learners. Thinking about some of those unique challenges that English language learners face during the IEP process, can you narrow down a couple of those challenges that often come up? 

Juliana: So, there's a lot of complexity to the intersection between being linguistically gifted, as I like to call it, meaning that, you know, another language other than English, and you are somewhere on that journey of developing English and special educational needs. There's a lot of intersection because all populations experience people who learn and think differently. 

So, I think when we're looking at populations that are commonly called the English language learner groups, right, we we need to understand who they are as people, what their journey has been and what their learning journey, right? So, for me, for example, I learned Spanish first, but I learned Spanish in a nonacademic family setting, right? I didn't really go to school in Spanish. So, the way I speak Spanish reflects that. 

There are children who maybe did go to school in a Spanish-speaking country, or even in the U.S. in a dual-language classroom, right? And then it's important to understand that, and then how the child developed English. How old were they? What skills did they already have in their first language? You know, a lot of my students were simultaneous bilingual speakers, meaning they were born in the U.S., in at their homes they spoke Spanish or another language, and outside of their homes they learned English and they come to kindergarten already having an understanding of both languages. 

So, understanding what the language development is for a child is really important. Taking the time to really learn from the family what that was. Sometimes, oftentimes kids have interruptions in their schooling. 

You know, depending on what your migration journey was like, depending on how you know, much access you had once you moved to the U.S. to find schools, to find housing. You know, there's a lot of a lot of nuances that can really inform why a child might be presenting challenges at school. 

A lot of the times, kids who have learning and thinking differences and are also linguistically gifted will present the challenges in both languages. That's something that tells me this child needs more supports. And the other thing, too, is making sure that just because a child is developing English and may score whatever score they have, that doesn't exclude them from receiving special education services. In a lot of places, there's a fear of identifying too early before the child has gotten a chance to develop English. 

If a child is presenting a special educational need, the school has to respond, be it with an intervention, be it with an evaluation, etc. I think too often, and this is the population that I serve the most often. Too often our students aren't really taken seriously in terms of their learning needs till fourth, fifth grade. 

I served so many students that were reading at pre-primary levels in third, fourth, and fifth grade, didn't get the services they needed for that reason because they hadn't developed English yet. That's not a precursor, and that's not something that should hold us back from supporting students the way they need to be supported. 

Julian: Got it. Got it. So, an IEP should be an individualized experience, right? Like it's an individualized plan. And you know, when we think about multilingual learners or as you said, linguistically gifted students, it can be somewhat difficult to spell out what does that actually look like? Can you give us an example or like a description of what that might look like in practice? 

Juliana: Yeah, absolutely. I think the way you organize an IEP can show that. So, for example, when I was the case manager of a student, I made sure that I built a relationship with that student's family ahead of time before I even sent any documents home. And when I did send a document home, I would always call the family and be like, "Look, you're going to get this paper. It's going to look really intimidating. But I've highlighted the really important parts. Here's an overview. If when you get it you want to talk it through, let me know and we can talk it through."

And so, it's building that partnership ahead of time. I think that that's one of the most culturally responsive practices that we can engage in, is just making sure that we're moving at the pace of understanding of the families that we're working with, knowing that they're navigating a completely new route. 

And even for people who were born in this country and raised in this country, our school systems aren't always the clearest. So, it's important to tell people what's happening. And the other thing too, is looking at, for example, goals, really thinking about that, students preferences, goals, their family, their families, aspirations for that child, and figuring out a way to really think of that child holistically. So, the most culturally responsive thing we can do is truly get to know the families that we work with so that those nuances of culture we're aware of. 

Julian: So, let me ask then, if I'm a teacher and I don't have the same cultural background as my students yet, I'm still trying to be culturally responsive for, linguistically gifted students, what are a couple of things that I could do to signal that I'm trying to build trust with the family, and I'm trying to build that rapport? What can I do as an educator to meet the needs of the family? 

Juliana: I'll tell you two things that I think are mind frame shifts versus things you have to do. It's how you look at the world. The first is that there is no normal. There is no normal language, no normal ethnicity, no normal anything, right? Those of us who are special education teachers thrive on this concept of breaking normative thought, right? No one that I approach is subcategorical or otherized. 

Julian: That's a word, subcategorical. Remember that one, listeners. All right, keep going. 

Juliana: Right? Like I don't know about you, but I grew up in Arizona and I think I internalized this idea that white and English was normal. Therefore I was subcategorical. And that's not a healthy mindset. I don't want my students to ever feel like that. So, I think for educators that's first, is there is no normal and there is no subcategorical. 

Secondly, I think that the most important thing to acknowledge is being a learner. When you are a lifelong learner, you're humble, you're open, you're curious, you're respectful. You're observant, right? You learn how to ask questions. You learn how to earn trust. 

So, I'll give you another example. When I moved out to Las Vegas, I hadn't had a whole lot of opportunity to engage with the Filipino community. When I moved to Vegas, there's a huge Filipino population and we don't speak the same language. There are some commonalities in our culture, but, you know, there's a lot of differences. 

And so, I really approached the community with a humbleness about wanting to understand who they were, their history, their languages, their family structures, and really just meet them where they're at. But also acknowledge that they had something to teach me. 

So, I think that there isn't an easy answer, because, right,  there's some schools where there's over 100 different languages spoken. Let's really embrace that. And not just like talk pretty about it. Let's make sure our actions really embrace linguistic diversity and preserving that linguistic diversity, right?

Julian: Right. Thinking about your experience for our linguistically gifted — I love that term. I'm going to use it all the time. But thinking about linguistically gifted students and their families, so say they're at a meeting and they might not feel comfortable in using English. Are they allowed to have a translator, or are they allowed to have services at the meeting to help them? 

Juliana: Not only are they allowed to. Schools are required to provide in-language interpretation for families. 

Julian: I knew that one too, I just wanted to make sure you said it.

Juliana: They have to do it. They have to do it. And we're talking about a day in technology where it's so accessible. I mean, it's not ideal, but like a language line where you have an interpreter over the phone is acceptable. It's not the best, but it works. You have different apps that translate. At this day and age, we have no excuse to not reach the families and not provide those services. 

But here's what I see happening a lot. Sometimes the families will have like a strong conversational English, and they'll want to appear, you know, like they know English and of course that they do. But as we know, IEPs can be very technical and very academic. Look, I would probably struggle translating a meeting into Spanish without doing some studying and without having like a cheat sheet, right? Like it's a lot of technical terms. 

Julian: It's hard for me and I speak English and it's hard when it's in English. Yeah. 

Juliana: It's OK if you speak English, but you're more comfortable in another language to request interpretation in that language. And that interpreter doesn't have to speak the whole time and interpret everything. They can just be somebody who you look at when something was said that you didn't get. You know, there is a spectrum of language abilities and it's OK. It is OK to be on anywhere of that spectrum. And, you know, even if you're in the IEP meeting, you didn't request a translator and you're like, "Look, I'm not comfortable. We need to reschedule with an interpreter," That's OK too. 

Julian: Those of you listening that may have a friend or other family member that is going through this process, and they happen to speak Spanish. Guess what? There is a season of podcasts that explains all of this in Spanish. Make sure you share. But Juliana, can you share again, you've led IEP meetings, you've you've probably taken part in hundreds of them. Thinking about the most successful ones, anything else that you can share with families that really made the process successful? 

Juliana: So, when families can unquestionably understand that that educator cares about that child, sees their strengths, leads with their strengths, I think families are more willing to not have to be defensive, to not have to put up fronts and just collaborate with you. I think oftentimes, unfortunately, IEPs can go really negative really fast. And we get over-focused and overwhelmed by how quote-unquote delayed or, you know, behind a child may be. 

It takes real skill but mostly real love to say, "Look, this is where your child is. Here are their strengths. I know that this is what we're working towards in a year, but here's our plan to get there." And so, it's that reassurance to the families that you're an expert in this field. You understand how to guide a child through their needs, but you see the human in them. 

You know, I think that the most successful meetings are the ones I got to loop with my students. It was my favorite part. So, sometimes I would start with them in like second grade, and I'd work with them until they're in fifth grade and ready to go to middle school. And there was tears shed by everybody at that table because that child was ready for full inclusion after four intensive, positive, difficult years of supporting that child through a gradual inclusion model, right?

Julian: Can you explain for the listeners like what is full inclusion? 

Juliana: Absolutely. So, kids can have special education services in different settings. One would be in the general education classroom, where they would be fully included with students who do not have IEP services. And then there's a lot of students who have like a mix. So, they'll have a general education teacher and they'll spend the majority of the day with that teacher in that class, but then they might leave the class and get resource supports in a small classroom with other kids who do have IEPs. 

And then there's some students who go to school in a self-contained placement. So, they have a classroom that is only for students with IEPs and have more intensive educational needs. And so, kids can go in and out of all of those settings and placements during their entire career as students. And it's just about meeting the kids' needs. 

Julian: So, I could see those tears happening right in that this is two, three, four years working with the same kid, and now they're ready to kind of go off and be fully included. That must be a great feeling. 

Juliana: That was a really great feeling. I mean, the child I'm thinking about particularly, he's twice exceptional. So, he's gifted, right? His IQ is exceptionally high and then he also is on the spectrum, right?, And so for him to really be able to harness his strengths and know what he likes and know also how to regulate his emotions and make connections with his peers and be able to do that in middle school. That's my stamp of approval as a teacher. You can give me whatever title you want, but you know, I did right by that kid. 

Julian: There you go. There you go. So, listeners, I feel very confident that we've learned a good amount about what we can do to support families and their children in the IEP process if they are linguistically gifted. Juliana, before we go, though, I'd love to explore more of your work since you stepped out of the classroom, right? 

So, now with 2021 being this amazing experience that, saw you traveling across the country to different schools and different programs, getting to meet policymakers, you've gotten like, a bird's eye view of what the educational landscape looks like across the country.

And I'd love to hear about your work with the President's Advisory Commission on Advancing Educational Equity, Excellence, and Economic Opportunity for Hispanics. That's a mouthful. Tell us about what you see. And do you see where do you see things going? Do you have hope that things will be getting better? 

Juliana: Yeah. I mean, if we could write a book about that question, right? Because it's so layered. I, to answer the biggest question I heard there is, do I have hope? And absolutely do I have hope. There's no doubt that I have hope. You know, Mariame Kaba talks about hope being a practice, not an emotion. And so, I feel hope every day because I see in action what it means to persevere, what it means to move forward. 

I listen to people my age and people much younger than me and how they advocate for their identity. And I'm like, "We're going to be all right," right? So, I think that there are some really big tellers about some positive action moving forward. I'm a big fan of our secretary of education, doctor Miguel Cardona. He's Puerto Rican. He came up through the school system as a teacher and administrator. 

Julian: He's from my home state of Connecticut. Connecticut, stand up. Yes. Yes, yes, yes. 

Juliana: And you look at the work he's doing with language preservation, right? If you look at how he approaches education from an asset mindset and our communities from an asset mindset. I'm not saying it's going to be easy. There are a lot of injustices that our families face. You know, when I first started teaching, I taught in Arizona at the height of the 1070 Show me your papers bill passing, and just the the fear that was very rightfully so apparent in our community about deportations, right? 

Like, I supported families through deportations, and it's not easy. The fears are real. The injustices are real. And so is our work towards creating that joy, that justice. People underestimate the impact that education can have, and they also underestimate the way first-generation communities value education. You know, when you ask families, "Why did you come to this country? What was your biggest reason, aside from maybe asylum and seeking refugee status and violence, etc.?," it's for education. 

So, I know the narrative is education doesn't matter these days, this and that. But when I look at a class of 30 students looking at me and most of them look like me, and I can see how much they care about what they're learning and and what they're going to be, you can't tell me education doesn't matter, right? So, I'm always going to be blissfully hopeful because I get to reflect the work teachers are doing across this country to elevate communities, communities of color, communities with special educational needs. 

Julian: I feel like, you know, sometimes we can talk all about the problems, but we have to make sure that we highlight where we're going and what we're seeing and how there's so much positivity and so much forward motion and where we're going with our work that it's just incredibly important to make sure that we keep focused on that. 

And I agree with you. I mean, if you're ever feeling down, walk into a classroom and your mood will change automatically, automatically. No matter what, walk into a classroom, spend three minutes with some kids and you'll see exactly like you said, we'll be all right. We're going to be just fine. 

Juliana, I could talk to you all day long. I just think it's such a pleasure to see how far you've gone with your work. I'm just so proud of you. And so proud of the work that you've put in on the behalf of those that don't have the platform that you do. 

You've got a chance to just stay true to yourself. And I think that's the most important thing, like staying true to who you are, staying true to the work, because the work is what really matters. And so, I'm just looking forward to hearing more about where you take this and what you do. 

And we're looking forward to more seasons of "Understood Explains." And we really hope that you check out the latest season of "Understood Explains" or "Understood Explica," because it really is a powerful piece of work. Juliana is a natural. Your presence is perfect, and our community needs to hear more voices in their language so that they can be seen, heard, and felt. Please check out all the resources that we will link in the show notes. Juliana, thank you so much. We appreciate you. 

Juliana: Muchas gracias.

Julian: Until next time, OG family! We'll be back soon. 

Thanks so much for listening today. We love hearing from our listeners. So if you have any thoughts about today's episode, you can email us at opportunitygap@Understood.org. And be sure to check out the show notes for links and resources to anything we mentioned in the episode. 

This show is brought to you by Understood.org. Understood is a nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering people with learning and thinking differences like ADHD and dyslexia. Learn more at Understood.org. 

"The Opportunity Gap" is produced by Tara Drinks and edited by Daniella Tello-Garzon. Our theme music was written by Justin De Wright, who also mixes the show. Ilana Millner is our supervising producer. Briana Berry is our production director. Neil Drumming is our editorial director. Our executive directors are Laura Key, Scott Cocchiere, and Seth Melnick. Thanks again for listening.

Host

  • Julian Saavedra, MA

    is a school administrator who has spent 15 years teaching in urban settings, focusing on social-emotional awareness, cultural and ethnic diversity, and experiential learning.

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