Before students with special needs even begin learning in the classroom, they already face barriers against their success— namely, perceptions against their ability to succeed.

Our Advocate’s Guide to Special Education explains why it’s so important for everyone, at each level of the school system, to believe in the potential of every student.

Below are some guidelines for what to look for in your school and district in order to determine whether they truly support students with special needs.

What to Look For

District/Charter Network

  • District or charter school network leaders express their belief that all students can achieve at high levels and act on that by making sure everyone shares responsibility for the success of students with special needs.
  • The school board and district leaders have publicly stated that the success of students with special needs is a priority. They publicly present data at least twice a year on how students are doing, and assess whether it’s effective.
  • District-level or network-level strategic plans include specific measurable goals about improving the performance of students with special needs and these are updated on an annual basis.
  • The district / charter school network surveys students to understand their experience and sets targets for improving on issues that surface in the survey results that relate to students with special needs.


  • All teachers take responsibility for all students. Teacher teams regularly review and discuss data and progress of students with special needs during common planning time.
  • Students with special needs and extracurricular activities. Schools track how many students with special needs are in these classes and activities, and set goals accordingly.
  • Students with special needs are among the students highlighted and celebrated for their strengths in school assemblies, awards ceremonies, newsletters, programs, etc.
  • All school staff use language that demonstrates their deep and unwavering belief in the potential of all students to achieve significant academic gains and find success in college and life. This belief is expressed clearly throughout classes and during school events.

What to Ask

When visiting a school or speaking with a district/charter school network administrator, ask:

Does everyone in the school system believe students with special needs can learn at a high level?
Do they show it in their interactions with students, families and each other?
Do they make these goals and intentions clear in the plans to which they hold themselves accountable?

By asking these questions — and seeing who can answer them — you can begin to grasp what sort of support your school has for special education.

Adapted from An Advocate’s Guide to Transforming Special Education