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Interview with Karen Gage, Founder of KidvoKit

Today, we are thrilled to present an interview with Karen Gage, founder of KidvoKit. KidvoKit helps families of kids with special needs navigate the education system and advocate for their children. Karen’s personal journey as a parent and entrepreneur inspired her to create KidvoKit to make the special education process less overwhelming for parents. Reflection Sciences CEO Isaac Van Wesep sat down with Gage to talk about how KidvoKit is transforming the educational landscape for families across the nation.

About KidvoKit: The Smart IEP Toolkit

KidvoKit is making it easier and faster for parents to get the insights they need to advocate effectively for their kids with disabilities. KidvoKit’s technology helps you navigate the IEP process by automatically organizing your IEP binder and answering questions about your special education rights.

Interview

IDVW (Isaac Van Wesep)

Karen Gage, thank you very much for joining me today. We’re really excited to hear about KidvoKit and what brought you to start this company and what you hope it can do for parents and families. Thank you very much for being here.

KG (Karen Gage)

Thank you for having me, Isaac.

IDVW

What led you to create KidvoKit?

KG

I have a wonderful son who really struggled in school and has dyslexia and ADHD. A lot of challenges with writing, reading, and executive function started to present themselves in preschool. He didn’t get diagnosed until about first grade and while there were really obvious gaps and challenges, the school was pretty slow to react. I had the experience of needing to push over and over again to get him what he needed…I didn’t know what to do, so I kept hiring people to advise me. Last year he made a huge amount of progress, and I was just reflecting that there has to be a better way to get to that outcome. I was also reflecting on things going on in my professional life education technology, and the rise of AI tutors and AI teaching assistants. I just had this moment in which I thought, why couldn’t AI help make this journey easier? And that was kind of the beginning of KidvoKit.

You can't assume that the school district is going to do it all. You actually have to take on the role of advocate.

IDVW

So KidvoKit is designed to address the challenges you faced with your own child and getting him the help that he needed?

KG

Yes. My experience was that getting an IEP is an important step, but it’s really kind of the beginning rather than the destination. And that you have this long, slow learning process as a parent. It’s kind of overwhelming; your child is struggling, you have a lot of feelings and emotions about that…You’re usually not an educator, so you’re not an expert. And there’s lots of jargon and processes and you kind of don’t know any of it when you start out. It feels shrouded in mystery. I wanted to demystify that for parents and make it simpler to figure out, “How does this all work?” and get parents insights faster so that they could be the advocate that their kid needs. 

I think one thing that a lot of parents who go through the journey learn is that you can’t assume that the school district is going to do it all. You actually have to take on the role of advocate, and I think a lot of families need help in figuring out how to do that because right now it’s very time consuming without KidvoKit. So one of my goals is to make getting the insights you need easier, and to speed up that learning process really dramatically, reduce the amount of time it takes you to understand all of those things so you can advocate confidently for kids.

IDVW

Those sound like really important benefits for families.? Tell me a little bit about the features of KidvoKit. What is it exactly? 

KG

KidvoKit is an AI toolkit to help parents navigate special education. So it starts with this mountain of documents and communications with the school that you have–or you will have if you don’t start out with them–but you probably have evaluations and data points. And then you start having conversations, or maybe you’ve already had conversations over email with teachers and administrators that your child is struggling, right? You’ve already started this. And there’s a lot that AI can do with documents and text.

So initially, the very first version of KidvoKit has two tools to it, and it’s going to grow over time. The first piece is using technology to automatically organize that entire paper trail and IEP binder by integrating with your Gmail account, and then using AI to organize everything for you and keep it self-sustaining and self-maintaining. And that’s something that most parents are like, “Oh, yeah, I should really get all that stuff together and see it in some kind of linear progression and have access to it when I need it,” and no one has time to do it. Some people try to manage everything themselves and they’ve got a giant binder of all their kids’ stuff. But mere mortals don’t have time: they start and then it becomes an overwhelming task. So this is really going to be an automated, self-maintaining option. 

The second main thing that is available in the first version is giving you instant answers to your questions about special education rights, processes, terminology, and practices. Because one of the things that takes a long time is navigating the laws in your state; every state has different rules. It’s all governed by federal legislation–mainly IDEA [Individuals with Disabilities Education Act]–but every state implements it a little bit differently. So when you search for information out on the internet, it’s usually more general than how it actually works in your state.

And it takes a long time to find that “other parent”. That’s what most people do: they try to find another parent that knows more than them. It takes a long time to find a parent that actually knows the things you need to know. And so you look back three years later and you’re like, “Wow, if I had been able to ask that question and find out immediately before that IEP meeting two years ago, that could have changed everything that happened. I didn’t even realize you could do that.”

So that’s the other piece: a way you can get answers that are grounded in your state’s rules, and an explanation of how all this works for you–just in time, whenever you need it, instantly. Not “go find a discussion board and hope that someone gives you the right answer.”

IDVW

That sounds incredibly valuable, especially for a new parent. You hear so much about first-time parents and what they don’t tell you about how to take care of a baby. But what about the first-time parent of a kid with special needs who knows that something’s missing from what the school is telling them? How do they find this information? It’s got to be a daunting and unsettling feeling to not know where to go for answers. And if you did have one place that you could reliably say, “I know that these are the right answers for my state and my situation,” that sounds like a great place for a parent to start when they’re first learning that they’re going to be on this journey. 

KG

Yeah. It also lets you learn in a just-in-time way. So it’s not like, “Oh, I had to read the entire book to find the piece of information that I need right now.” Sometimes having all that context is awesome, but sometimes you’re really like, “They haven’t gotten back to me since I made this request. Were there any rules about that? What should I do?” So, very tactical things can be a part of it as well.

IDVW

And that’s where the AI really shines, right? I think we’re so early with AI, it’s hard to even understand how you could be like, “Could this piece of information really be at my fingertips when I need it? I’m not even sure what question I should be asking or whether there’s even information to be had”, but now AI can say, “Hey, by the way, in this set of conditions, here’s this information you need to know.” And I don’t think there would have been another way to do that in the past.

KG

Yeah, no, there really hasn’t been. I think that whole issue of not knowing exactly what questions to ask is a very valid thing, and it happens for everybody. So some of what we were trying to do was build in suggestions about questions you might want to ask, but still allow for people to ask their own specific questions. We also give some guidance about things you may or may not know about, and you might pick some of our questions and ask those, or you may just write your own questions and get them answered. So you have both options.

And then over time, I think the technology will use the information in your personal documents to guide you in a more personalized way. So that’s the next step. 

IDVW

So listening to your story, it sounds like you’re a parent, and now you started this technology company, but how does a parent start a technology company? Are you a “tech whiz” or something? 

KG

I don’t write code. And I think that my background in education technology really helped me see what a solution could look like. 

IDVW

What is that background? 

KG

I spent many years working on products and marketing and education technology for universities and schools. Most recently, I worked on a product called ListenWise, and we went from the early experience of trying to bring a product to schools all the way through having a large number of schools using it with students. So I definitely bring the experience of that to this.

But it’s a different thing to say, “Oh, it’s my idea and I’m going to create the whole thing from scratch.” That part of this is a new experience for me. There are lots of great examples in special ed of parents organizing, advocating–not necessarily all making technology products, but certainly we’ve seen a lot of recent changes in education that came from parent advocacy, especially in the area of dyslexia legislation, screening, and reading instructions.

So there is lots of power in parents seeing the problem and wanting to do something about it. My background led me to want to build a technology product to help people and bring my personal lived experience together with my professional experience. 

IDVW

It sounds like you’ve got the experience that you need to create a really useful product. So what should caregivers know about getting an IEP for their child? 

KG

Well, like I mentioned, you have to go into it thinking that getting the IEP is the first step, not the destination. So it is going to be an iterative process over time. You’re going to be learning and helping your kid over multiple, multiple years. And it’s not going to all be, shall we say, “correct” or “perfect” in the first iteration. So that’s one thing: to treat it like you’re entering a collaboration with the school or district as opposed to them figuring it all out for you and supporting your child. 

Another thing is that in terms of getting an IEP, either the parent or the school can refer a student for an IEP. What you’re actually referring them for is for an evaluation, right? So before all IEPs are offered or not offered, they’re going to do testing on your child.

And if the school is not suggesting this, you can request it, and you should request it in writing. There are resources that you can Google about how you might want to express that and what’s good to put in your letter. But definitely make sure it’s in writing because the reality is if you just had a conversation with the teacher and you’re like, “Yeah, I think he needs more help, like he should probably have an IEP,” and they go, “Oh, yeah, probably,” basically that conversation almost didn’t happen because it was just verbal and you’re not requesting it of the principal or special education director. And then be aware that once you do that, there are timelines and the school has to respond to you in a certain amount of time.

And then it’s the results of that testing that will determine if or what type of support is provided in the IEP. So that’s pretty much always the first step. Even if you have a screener–and maybe it’s a great screener, like something from Reflection Sciences–that says your child has certain weaknesses, generally, when you take that to a school district, they’re not like, “Oh, okay, great. Here’s your IEP.” They go through their own testing process to see if you qualify under a certain disability category. So, there are a lot of rules and regulations about how they do that. So don’t be surprised if they don’t say, “Oh, sure, here’s your IEP” when you show them your screening report.

Karen Gage founder of KidvoKit
Karen Gage, founder of KidvoKit

 

IDVW

Are there any other big misconceptions that caregivers have about IEPs? 

KG

One is that the IEP team includes the parent. That is not just a reference to the school staff. So that’s your opportunity to kind of express your voice and be at the table. 

Another one is this question of “will it label my kid?” Or “will having an IEP make my kid more identified in a negative way or have more stigma?” And I think for the most part, if a kid is struggling in school, the other kids are going to know that already–they are going to recognize that dynamic. The goal of the IEP is to give them more support so they can succeed. But I think that is a concern. I think in elementary school, it’s less of a thing. And at least in my experience, elementary schools are kind of pulling kids out [of the classroom] for different things all the time. And it’s very much a part of the flow. 

And the other part is that the IEP won’t be a silver bullet; it’ll still be a bunch of work to figure out how to best support your kid, and to engage in and think of it as a journey rather than something that’s going to be your silver bullet. Because things do change for kids over time, too. Like, what they need in third grade is not the same as what they needed in kindergarten. And they may or may not still be on an IEP in middle school. So it will change. 

IDVW

So for a caregiver who’s just beginning to do their research about this, where should they go first? What’s a good place to start? 

KG

So, a few different ideas. One is understood.org. It has lots of good articles about special education, and they’re pretty general, but if you’re trying to ground yourself and get some background knowledge, that can be a good place to start. If you like books, there’s a book from Wright’s Law called Emotions to Advocacy

In many districts, there is some kind of parent group for parents who have kids in special education. In Massachusetts, we call those SEPACs. Just connecting with another group of parents can be really, really helpful. Often those groups are where you might find out about an annual webinar where they present about parent rights. Usually those happen towards the start of the school year so you can understand how it works. So those would be some places to get started. 

IDVW

We’ve touched on how it can be complicated to get the IEP, but how that’s just the beginning of the journey, and how the parent or caregiver is part of the IEP team. As a parent myself, I could see myself avoiding the IEP conversation because it just sounds too daunting. So I’m wondering, for KidvoKit, is that something that is just for the most complex and difficult cases in IEPs? What if I don’t even know whether or not my kid needs an IEP or could get one? Could I still use KidvoKit to help me figure that out? 

KG

So KidvoKit is for families that already have IEPs or are entering the evaluation process for an IEP. KidvoKit is designed to support all different kinds of IEPs and levels of complexity. Even if everything is super simple, you’re still going to have questions. I have yet to talk to a single parent who was like, “Oh, yeah, that was all easy. And I wasn’t stressed. And I knew how it all worked.” But I will say, the vast majority of parents engage in the IEP process themselves. They don’t hire advisors and what have you. When situations get complex or sticky, that’s when professional advisors usually come into the situation. Most people can’t afford them, but they need more than just being on their own and not really understanding how it works. So while it is complex, the reality is that parents are motivated by helping their kid. It’s horrible to watch a kid struggle in school. The IEP is essentially the legal way to create an agreement with the school district about how your kid is going to get additional support, and having access to those services and legal protections for your kid that has a disability is worth it.

IDVW

So when does a caregiver know that now’s the time for them to start looking at an IEP?

KG

That’s a very personal decision, of course. Basically, your child is struggling in school and the classroom seems to be more than the classroom teacher can accommodate while still making them successful, whether that is academically, behaviorally, or emotionally. If you’re needing to provide some huge amount of support for their schoolwork at home in order for them to barely get by; if it’s like homework has taken over your entire life or kids are not handing in the stuff that they do; if they’re not able to show what they know when they’re at school. You get plenty of progress data in different forms.

And I think you have to also trust your gut a bit, right? If you’re like, “My kid is not doing well. I don’t think they’re progressing as they should,” and the teacher’s like, “Oh, they’re fine. They’re lovely. We love having them in class…They’ll figure it out eventually.” Request an evaluation.

IDVW

Okay, that’s good. Thank you. That’s a great answer. Thanks for doing this with us. I’m hoping that this interview will be a place that, for some caregivers and families, is the first thing that they read about considering an IEP for their child. And I think you’ve given people a lot of really good advice on where to go next. Do you have any final advice for parents with a child who might have special needs? 

KG

I just reiterate that you are an expert on your kid. You may not be an educational expert, but you know your kid. And ideally, enlisting the school and helping them be successful doesn’t mean you stop being that expert. Your role as an advocate is really important for the whole thing to succeed and that’s the ultimate goal. 

IDVW

And even though a school is a large institution, you can succeed in getting the help that you need for your child, right? It is possible, as daunting as it may seem. I can imagine a lot of caregivers getting discouraged, for example, coming out of a meeting when they hear, “Oh, well, we did the evaluation and your child doesn’t need an IEP,” or “This is what we think will help,” and you know that’s not actually getting to the root cause of what’s going on. I can imagine getting very discouraged by that and wanting to throw my hands up, and needing not just information, but moral support, too.

You are an expert on your kid. You may not be an educational expert, but you know your kid. And ideally, enlisting the school and helping them be successful doesn't mean you stop being that expert.

KG

Yeah, absolutely. KidvoKit is really designed for the information side of it and getting to the ‘aha’ moments faster. But the emotional side of it for parents is also really important. So, even if the other parents don’t have the answers, for me it has always been super, super valuable and helpful to talk to someone else that knows what it’s like and is going through a similar thing or has gone through a similar thing. Because in settings where other parents may have neurotypical kids, or kids who aren’t struggling, it can be really hard and not something you want to disclose. So finding people who understand and can support each other can be a really valuable piece as well.

IDVW

Yeah, I bet. Finding that support network or that community of people who can relate to what you’re going through and where you don’t feel judged is a big deal. 

KG

Yeah. 

IDVW

Well, Karen, this is really exciting. And what stage are you at right now with KidvoKit? Could a parent sign up right now and use it? What could they get out of it today? 

KG

So today parents in Massachusetts have access to both tools. They can sign up for KidvoKit and get both the automated paper trail binder, as well as the way to ask questions about special ed. Right now parents in other states can get the automated IEP binder, but by fall we should have it generally available across most states. 

IDVW

So these are the sort of the state by state laws that you’re putting together, and you’re piloted now in Massachusetts. And anybody across the country can get the binder that helps keep you organized, but for the state by state AI answers to your questions, that’s Massachusetts right now and then hopefully the rest of the country later on this year?

KG

Yeah, exactly.

IDVW

Wow hat’s really exciting. I hope you will keep us updated. 

KG

Absolutely. I would love to do that.

IDVW

Thank you Karen Gage, founder of KidvoKit. I appreciate your time today and good luck to you this summer. 

KG

Thanks so much for the time and the interest, Isaac. 

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