District 65 stakeholders reflect on switch to new IEP and 504 plan software


Daily file photo by Patrick Svitek.

A District 65 school building. Evanston Township High School uses the software that District 65 switched to, so Assistant Superintendent of Student Services Romy DeCristofaro said the change would make communication with ETHS easier.

Aviva Bechky, Assistant City Editor

Several months after switching the software for Individualized Education Programs and 504 plans, Evanston/Skokie School District 65 administrators and advocates say the district’s new system, Embrace, offers new features to enable easier communication and clearer plans.

IEPs and 504 plans generally describe school support for students with disabilities.

Embrace embeds progress reports under each goal and objective to make the reports easier to understand, according to Bailey Estabrooke-Kostas, District 65’s diverse learning coordinator.

Kate Noble, the executive director of education advocacy organization Evanston CASE, agreed the new system enables IEPs to be more efficient with layouts that clearly explain expectations.

“It was a long time coming, and I’m excited to be able to have an IEP that’s only 10 or 15 pages versus 45,” she said. “It’s just easier to read and to locate information.”

Assistant Superintendent of Student Services Romy DeCristofaro said the system also allows administrators to look at data sorted by demographic factors and examine equity in IEPs, an issue she said the district has sometimes struggled with. 

Anna Marie Candelario, the director of special services for District 65, added the customizable data reports from Embrace would allow the district to identify and problem solve how different groups of students are being served.

“We’ve been identified as a district that has significant disproportionality issues with over-identification of Black students with emotional disabilities,” DeCristofaro said. “So that’s been a focus. And we’ve made some progress towards that goal in the last three years.”

Evanston Township High School District 202 also uses Embrace, which DeCristofaro said makes sharing documents easier when students switch schools.

The process of switching over from EasyIEP to Embrace hasn’t been entirely smooth. Noble said she heard from parents that transferring files caused problems at the beginning of the year.

“One of the biggest issues that happened at the beginning of the year was a lot of the information from EasyIEP did not transfer over to Embrace such as safety plans, health plans, emergency plans, things like that,” she said. “So that was very difficult for families and school teams at the beginning of the year to locate all of the information for each student.”

She also noted that the parent portal, which is meant to facilitate easier communication, works imperfectly.

Estabrooke-Kostas said she thinks more staff training will help iron out difficulties with the system. The district held ongoing training throughout the year and is planning further training in March.

“I haven’t really heard anybody that’s like, ‘I hate it, I’m never using it,’” she said. “It’s more of just a, ‘Hey, do you think you could show me how to use this part?’”

Kelly Baldrate, the parent of a District 65 student who has an IEP and a co-chair of the Special Education Parent Advisory Council, said she hopes the system incorporates a positive reframing around student strengths.

She said she’s had little interaction with Embrace so far and noticed little when the system switched. Overall, she’s pushing for bigger changes than an electronic system, looking at shifting mindsets toward disability justice.

Baldrate said it was too soon to tell how much impact the system would make, and Noble said Embrace may not make “a ton” of impact overall. At the same time, Noble does think it will be beneficial during IEP meetings.

“When it comes the time in the process to start drafting goals and creating an IEP and then at annual meetings, amending and changing and adjusting the IEP, I think that will make a big difference,” Noble said. “Once everything is up and running, I do think it will save time for teachers and for staff.”

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