Individualized Education Plan (IEP) Vs. SLIFE

Jose*, reading with our native language specialist, Sarah

Jose*, reading with our native language specialist, Sarah

A quick Google search of the terms ‘IEP’ and ‘SLIFE’ won’t get you very far. In fact, when I tried it, Google attempted to correct my search to “IEP and wife” (IEP and SIFE) and “IEP and SLIDE” (IEP and SLIFE). The most basic explanation for this is that the data on Students with Limited/Interrupted Formal Schooling and disabilities doesn’t exist (with few exceptions), and therefore, you won’t find much when you search. Acquiring language and learning to read are both complex processes which will be discussed in a subsequent post, but today I want to profile my student *Jose.

For those who are not familiar, an IEP (individualized education plan) is a legal document created for students identified as “having a disability” according to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, legislation enacted in 1975 ensuring a free and appropriate public education to students with disabilities. The IEP maps out instruction, support, and services student will receive in school. The IEP process if often long, and particularly complicated for English Language Learners.

Jose came to our school with a constant smile on his face. The curly afro on his head and his loud laugh made him easy to spot in a crowd. At the age of 18, he had been through a lifetime of experience – Jose came to the U.S. as an unaccompanied minor. When sharing his story, he told us that he came to the United States without a guide (this is uncommon), and upon crossing the border in Texas, was brought to a shelter for unaccompanied minors where he remained for some time before coming to us in New York.

Originating from the coastal region of Honduras, Jose is Garifuna. Primarily of African descent, the Garifuna people live primarily along the coast of Honduras, Belize, Guatemala, and Nicaragua and have their own language, culture, and religion. When Jose came to our school he spoke Spanish and Garifuna (both languages are spoken interchangeably in the Garifuna regions of Honduras). Jose had attended school until the third grade in Honduras and had been out of school since then by the time he reached us.


While he had retained some alphabetic knowledge, he had completely forgotten how to read and write in Spanish. He was immediately labeled SLIFE. It was also clear that he had cognitive and behavioral difficulties, and as a result, his teachers inquired about an IEP for him. Additionally, the paperwork from his primary school in Honduras documented his learning and behavioral struggles. The answer given to his teachers was ‘no’. When a student is considered SLIFE, he is ineligible for an IEP because it is not clear whether or not his language challenges are from a disability, or from missed schooling.

Jose began working with our native language specialist, Sarah, and made considerable gains despite cognitive and behavioral challenges. Jose was determined to learn how to read and write. His classes were not credit bearing, yet he showed up every day. School became home. While we were servicing his language and emotional needs, we could not service his cognitive and behavioral needs. After some considerable convincing, he was evaluated for special education services and received an IEP. As a result, Jose switched schools that could better service his cognitive and behavioral needs. After some time, it was communicated to us that Jose dropped out of his new school and that he was struggling to write words with more than a couple syllables, showing that it was possible he was losing part of his Spanish literacy. What is a student like Jose supposed to do in a system that is not created for students like him? Where does he go to get the ‘best’ and most ‘appropriate’ education?

Without options for services and clear guidelines, our SLIFE population, and particularly our SLIFE population with disabilities is particularly vulnerable. Our schools need better support for these students and for this sub group of SLIFE. More research must be done.

*Name has been changed to protect identity

**Thank you to Sarah Digby, native language specialist, for sharing her research on Jose. This profile would not be complete without you.