AEAs are critical to the success of Iowa’s education system

In 1974, Iowa legislators, under the leadership of Chuck Grassley, championed a groundbreaking initiative: the creation of the Area Education Agency system (AEAs). These AEAs, a network of 15 organizations, were established through innovative legislation to provide efficient, effective and equitable educational services to all students across Iowa. This monumental move streamlined special education services, moving them from county-based systems to the 15 AEAs, ensuring that every student in the state, regardless of their location, would receive services tailored to their Individual Education Program (IEP).

During the 1970s and 1980s, the AEAs collaborated closely with local school districts and the Department of Education to identify students with disabilities and ensure their access to quality educational services within public schools.

Fast forward to the early 1990s, when the Department of Education, in collaboration with several AEAs and local school districts, introduced a noncategorical process for identifying students with special education needs. This process represented a shift towards a holistic evaluation of students, considering not just traditional achievement and IQ tests, but also the entire learning environment, curriculum and the student’s unique needs. It was a transformation that led to better understanding and more effective interventions.

The hallmark of this approach is a commitment to viewing special education as a means to support students, not as a life sentence. If interventions within the general education setting prove successful, they are maintained. If they require more intensive support, the child is referred to special education. Continuous assessment and adjustments ensure that each student’s unique needs are met effectively.

Over the past five decades, the AEAs have evolved, recognizing the interconnectivity of the three service areas: general education, special education and media services. Emphasizing that all students are general education students first, this interconnected approach has paved the way for improved instructional services benefiting all students.

In recent years, the AEAs have joined forces with Educational Services to identify strategies within the general education setting that can help students thrive and learn. When a student faces challenges, a collaborative approach is taken. For instance, if a child struggles with reading, Educational Services steps in to identify gaps in their skill progression. Interventions are implemented within the general education framework to address these gaps. Special education support is called upon only when significant gaps persist. The focus is always on the holistic development of each child.

This tiered approach extends beyond academics to encompass various aspects such as behavior, mental health, health, mobility and more. Experts are readily available to assist with autism, behavior and mental health issues, ensuring comprehensive support for all districts within the AEA.

Today, a dedicated team works tirelessly to provide services and support tailored to each district’s unique needs. The collaboration between Education Services, Special Education and Media resources ensures that every child has the tools and assistance necessary to succeed within the educational system.

In Iowa, the Special Education system is both vast and complex, but it is through the harmonious collaboration of all three AEA service areas that we ensure every student reaches their full potential. Special education in Iowa is not about limitations; it’s about empowering every child to become the best version of themselves. AEAs are not just important; they are indispensable to the success of Iowa’s education system and, more importantly, its students.

Dr. Mary Stevens is a board member for Central Rivers Area Education Agency and Amy Knupp is the executive director of special education with Central Rivers Area Education Agency. They can be reached at mstevens@centralriversaea.org and aknupp@centralriversaea.org. Central Rivers AEA serves over 63,500 students including 53 public school districts and 18 non-public school districts. In addition, nearly 5,000 educators rely on our agency for services in special education, school technology, media and instructional/curriculum support. The agency’s service area reaches 18 counties and nearly 9,000 square miles. Learn more at https://www.centralriversaea.org/about/