Active Student Participation Inspires Real Engagement (ASPIRE) Program

ASPIRE logo"No one knows a student better than the student themselves," says Shannon Williams, a 7th grade special education teacher at Mossy Creek Middle School in Houston County. "So, how can I develop the best education plan without going straight to the source?"

Williams is in her first year of implementing a program using an education approach that engages the student as an active participant in their education decisions and is quickly becoming popular across Georgia schools for students with disabilities.

The Active Student Participation Inspires Real Engagement (ASPIRE) program is a student-led Individual Education Program (IEP) initiative that builds self-confidence, self-determination and self-advocacy skills, which are essential in preparing students for the educational, career and independent living decisions they will need to make in adulthood.

ASPIRE in Georgia began as a collaboration between the Georgia Department of Education (GaDOE) and the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities (GCDD) in 2010. With funding from a five-year State Personnel Development Grant (SPDG) to improve transition outcomes for youth with disabilities, GaDOE chose to develop the ASPIRE program in Georgia based on many other successful models across the country.

The State wanted to introduce a systematic approach that would not only improve student transition outcomes but also allow students to have a greater voice in the IEP. Members of the SPDG planning team met with GCDD staff to collaborate on planning and then worked with them as consultants to facilitate training for teachers and administrators in pilot schools.

GCDD provided support by facilitating the implementation of ASPIRE for schools and follow-up consultations for scaling up in their schools or district. Through a grant GCDD funded for Partnerships for Success (PFS), a program using a self-determination

curriculum for youth with disabilities to set their own goals, GCDD was able to bring elementary schools into the project and provide teachers information and materials about self-determination.

"We officially piloted ASPIRE in the 2010-11 school year and started with 12 schools, 118 students and 56 teachers and administrators," says Elise James, project manager for the ASPIRE program. "Since then, we have expanded tremendously and have about 1,400 parents, students, teachers and administrators in over 90 schools in 22 districts." And, the Houston County Schools district is implementing ASPIRE district-wide and has created a systematic plan for all students to be active participants in their IEP by 2016.

Today, the collaboration has expanded to include the Georgia Learning Resources System (GLRS) network so that an increase in capacity and sustainability can be achieved statewide. The State is focusing on promoting ASPIRE to school districts by making guidelines and materials on how to implement ASPIRE available online.

"The idea is to make it easy for parents, students, teachers and administrators to understand the process and be able to implement ASPIRE with more flexibility," says James. "The end goal is to have improved outcomes for students with disabilities who graduate, go to college, technical schools or who become employed. This new approach will offer more schools the opportunity to support student-led IEPs."

How Does ASPIRE Work?

Formerly, IEPs were just a discussion between teachers, parents and administrators, aimed at addressing a child's needs and putting together an education plan for that student. Students usually did not come to the meetings until they were in high school or were required to be there by law at the age of majority (18).

"With ASPIRE, the student contributes and helps determine the content of their IEP, which allows them to become more involved and responsible for their education," notes Cindy Saylor, PFS program coordinator and ASPIRE consultant. "The goal is for the student to be the center of the meeting and for their voice, interests and desires to be heard and reflected in their IEP goals/plan." IEP meetings are held at least annually and are attended by the IEP team, which includes the student, teachers, parents and administrator. Because the goal is to individualize the IEP, each student prepares a personal presentation that shares their interests, strengths, challenges and goals in their education and life.

"I start off by introducing myself to everyone at the meeting and share what I think about my school life and family," says Kameron Hayes, a 7th grader at Mossy Creek Middle School in his third year of leading his own IEP. "I like to share my voice because people can learn more about me and how to help me succeed in school." Based on the meeting, the student contributes content in their own IEP based on guidance from their teachers while participating in ASPIRE. This process increases the student's ability to problem solve, self-evaluate and develop selfdetermination and decision-making skills.

"We as adults and teachers try and guess what our kids strengths, weaknesses and goals are, but our perceptions are different from theirs – adults and kids think differently, and this process balances that," shares Dr. Andy Gentry, principal at Mossy Creek Middle School.

Williams, Hayes' teacher agrees. "Already in my first year, I have seen my students develop a sense of confidence. It helps when I know my student's interests and what they want to accomplish. That allows me to plan a curriculum and make accommodations for them to be successful and focusing on things they are interested in helps them stay motivated."

"Math used to be my favorite subject, but we've learned it's hard for me now," says Hayes. "Through my IEP we discovered that tutoring after school and just talking it over more than in class helps me do better." The student's participation in ASPIRE doesn't just help identify solutions to challenges, but they help students work toward future goals and aspirations.

"This process helps me with my communication skills and getting along with my classmates and teachers, which helps me in school and life," Hayes adds. "I want to be a meteorologist and work in a news station when I grow up. When we talk about my strengths and weaknesses in my meetings, they can help me work on the skills I need for that job." During the 2013-2014 school year, ASPIRE will be offered to schools and districts through GLRS mini-grants.

Any schools or districts interested in participating in the ASPIRE program should contact their GLRS. Find your local center at