Strength in Differences – Special Education at KIPP

My name is Kate Birbilis, and I am a longtime special educator. I have always believed that all kids can learn and grow with the right supports, and my passion is to create and provide holistic programming for KIPPsters who don’t aren’t necessarily on the traditional academic path. 

KIPP’s overall mission has historically been ‘to and through college,’ but this program recognizes student growth and success in another way.”

STP Program Specialist, Kate Birbilis

In 2014, our special education team recognized the need for an even more specialized approach to support and grow students with specific learning challenges. That year, five students who enrolled at KIPP Heartwood in San Jose were on the autism spectrum and had significant needs. They required Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), which are contracts between the school and parent/student to ensure the necessary supports, services, and accommodations are put into place so the child can fully access their education. After reading through these particular students’ IEPs and talking with their families, it was quite clear that KIPP Heartwood wouldn’t be able to support them in a typical general education setting. 

Kate Birbilis with KIPP San Jose Collegiate 10th graders Khang (left) & Luke (right)

Motivated by these students’ needs, I helped launch and grow the Specialized Teaching Program (STP) at KIPP Bay Area. The STP program focuses on general academic concepts that students are able to apply in real ways in everyday life. We also focus on communication & social skills building and skills needed for future jobs, including sorting, time management, task completion, sequencing, and safety. KIPP’s overall mission has historically been ‘to and through college’ but this program recognizes student growth and success in another way. We support and teach our students who are differently abled to lead choice-filled lives.

Since 2014, the STP team has worked hard to find meaningful ways for the students in the program to interact with the broader student community in their schools. Our team piloted Best Buddies, an initiative that encourages kids to volunteer to become a peer buddy for the students in the STP program. These student partnerships resulted in broader awareness, inclusion, and a stronger student community at KIPP Heartwood. You could really see how our students became more socially and emotionally aware of the students in the STP program and of each other. Everyone was more open in talking about their differences and even in recognizing what they personally might need help with. 

Luke has come a long way with the wonderful support of his teachers at KIPP. With the inclusion provided by the STP program, Luke has had the opportunity to learn & interact with other students throughout the years and has become a lot more social and independent.”

Trang Nguyen, KIPP parent

Our biggest challenge has been trying to find meaningful times for students to be included with the rest of the student community and making it accessible for them in the classrooms and at events. It has especially been a struggle for our founding STP students, who are now in high school where there are fewer classes they are able to engage in, but there is always a way for our students to learn outside the classroom. They help in the office and join other students in study hall for a shared learning experience with peers.

Two of our original students are currently enrolled in 10th grade at KIPP San Jose Collegiate. Their education plan includes soft skills training and life skills curriculum to help them prepare for living and working within their community. STP Specialists also look to our greater local communities for ways to build and practice life skills. Our South Bay schools have partnered with the San Jose Parks and Recreation Department for elective therapeutic programs that are catered to our students’ needs. They learn cooking, fitness, and art as they connect and interact with people outside of school and their families. 

The Specialized Teaching Program started five years ago with five students at just one school. Today, we have STP classrooms across the region’s 15 schools, and we are continuing to expand this program to support all of our students reach their goals whatever they may be.

Overall, 10% of KIPP Bay Area students receive special education support, which is on par with the California state average. I am proud that every KIPP student is given the support they need and that it doesn’t necessarily look the same for everyone.

It’s a beautiful and necessary thing to honor our differences.

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