Aug 29, 2023 - News

Parallel Learning aims to provide all-around care in special education

Photo of a classroom desk with a packet of papers and a tub of markers

Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Diana Heldfond, CEO of Parallel Learning, wants to transform the ecosystem for students with different learning abilities in the U.S.

Why it matters: About 7.3 million students have disabilities across the U.S. — roughly 15% of all public school enrollment, a July report from Pew Research Center found. But the system for special education services — which remains overburdened, understaffed and vastly fragmented — isn't adequately addressing the need, Heldfond told Axios.

State of play: For every student in special education, there are usually about four who are not getting the services they need, according to Heldfond.

  • Yet 40% of public schools with a special education teaching vacancy said they faced difficulties filling the position, per Pew's report.
  • The struggle to make up for lost time and backlogs, combined with a lack of providers and resources, has created "the perfect storm" and forced special education teachers to take on caseloads two to three times what the average should be, Heldfond noted.

How it works: Parallel Learning is a virtual care platform that was created in 2021. It allows students to work with a network of specialized providers, including clinical social workers, speech-language pathologists and psychologists.

  • Together they build a customized plan for each student and also partner with schools to improve assessment and diagnostics so students can get the help they need as early as possible, Helfond said.
  • Parallel currently works with several Bay Area districts — though not San Francisco, which Heldfond said they hope to do in the future. Its services are available in 12 states, including California.

What they're saying: Heldfond, who grew up in San Francisco, was diagnosed with dyslexia and ADHD around age 7.

  • She told Axios she vividly remembers hearing a classmate declare that he'd finished a Harry Potter novel while she struggled to read a picture book.
  • But her parents' advocacy and support helped her "reap the benefits of early detection and early intervention," she said.
  • "I really was set up on a very different course to success than most students," she noted, adding that her experience is what she hopes to scale up and replicate with Parallel.

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