EALA’s 2023 New Champions Retreat: Enhancing Support and Creating Opportunities for Special Education Students in Underserved Communities

Posted on • Reading Time: 4 min read

This article was written by Jackie Keenan on  September 27, 2023 and published by the Educating All Learners Alliance.



New Champions sitting around a table writing

Beginning in 2022, EALA has granted an annual unrestricted competitive sub-grant and year-long mentorship to support leaders of color, or allies of the equity in education movement, who are actively working to support students with disabilities, including students who are also marginalized, come from underserved communities, or experience poverty. Additionally, EALA has provided two $5,000 sub-grants to runners-up as determined by the panel of New Champions judges. 


In the ever-evolving landscape of education, it’s crucial to explore innovative approaches that address the unique needs of diverse student populations. Recently, a group of education leaders came together to discuss groundbreaking ideas for improving the educational experience of high-need Special Education students. This blog post will delve into their creative ideas and initiatives, highlighting opportunities to foster more inclusive and effective learning environments for these students.  

Two adults sitting at a table and one standing looking at something


“I appreciate your organization; you are not just a financial support to these projects, but [you] also [invest] resources and time into these projects”- Deb Hanmer, Breakthrough Leadership Consulting


 In September 2023, EALA was joined by past and present New Champions to dive deeper into refining their project goals and outcomes. The New Champions Retreat occurred on September 27 in Kansas City, Missouri. The 2023 New Champion Kim Riley of The Transition Academy and runner-up Nekia Wright of Ujamma LLC. were joined by 2022 runner-up New Champions: Charles Cole of Energy Converters and Leena Bakshi of Stem 4 Real. These innovative thinkers were led in project planning by Deb Hanmer of Breakthrough Leadership Consulting. We would also like to shine a light on the 2023 runner up New Champion, Antoinette Banks of Expert IEP, and 2022 New Champion Dena Simmons of LiberatED, who could not attend the retreat but are active members of our New Champions community.  

The retreat began with New Champions reflecting on memories from their upbringings: challenges, family values, and reminiscing on the smells of banana pudding, fried chicken, masala, barbeque, fried catfish, and cornbread. Deb was laying the groundwork for what would become a very effective and influential day. 

Kim Riley, an advocate for Special Education, shared her vision for creating a specialized transition charter school, The Transition Academy. The Transition Academy supports young people with autism or developmental disabilities explore college or career options as they prepare to transition from school to life as an adult. Riley emphasized the importance of improving postsecondary outcomes for high school Special Education students in Kansas City Public Schools, and other charter schools in the area. “I am leaving with an actionable game plan,” Riley shared as we began to wrap up our session. 

Leena Bakshi focuses on increasing support and access to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) for Special Education students in underserved communities. She accomplishes this through her organization, Stem 4 Real. Bakshi advocates for integrating STEM content into Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) to provide a more well-rounded education. Special Education students typically do not have an equal opportunity to access the STEM community, and Bakshi wants to help make this a possibility for all learners. As we began wrapping up, Bakshi shared, “This time was a gift and I am very grateful for the opportunity to be a part of it, and to work with Deb. I am leaving wanting more”.  

Nekia Wright’s approach emphasizes the importance of supporting BIPOC who are parents of Special Education students through her organization, Ujamma LLC. This includes advocating for children, offering in-person events, and providing job pathways for parents in the Special Education realm. Wright wants parents to have the tools to confidently advocate for their children. When talking to Wright about her experience at the New Champions retreat, she said, “I feel like [I now] I have resources… to grow more sustainably”. 

Charles Cole is an educator, advocate, and writer focused on the advancement of youth, more specifically, Black males. Wanting parents within the BIPOC community to understand their rights within their child’s education, he wrote The Agentic Black Parent Ebook. Cole has also published several reports such as Ebony Towers: Characteristics of Black Charter School Leaders with HBCU Roots, and The Importance of Brown Led Charter Networks From the Voices of Brown Students. During his time at the New Champions Retreat, Cole highlighted the significance of templates to structure processes within his nonprofit to build a successful future for his organization. 

In the realm of marginalized communities within Special education, these innovators are driving change and creating opportunities to improve outcomes for students, teachers, and parents alike. Their ideas and strategies, from specialized charter schools and STEM inclusion to parental support and advocacy, offer valuable insights into enhancing the education and support of Special Education students. By addressing the requirements, risks, and opportunities, these education leaders are taking meaningful steps toward a brighter future for all learners.  

During our final moments at the retreat, Co-Founder and Executive Director Erin Mote joins in to offer her support to the New Champions. “Ask for help when you need it. Let us know what you need and how we can support you… It is about building community and transformation… Whatever we can do to help [we want to support you in any way we can]”.  

Well said, Erin! We look forward to the progression and development of each individual’s organization. Follow along to see where these New Champions are this time next year!