A Cognitive Scientist Turns a Personal Struggle into a Mission for Inclusive Learning

February 28, 2024
Photo credit: JMartin Visuals / (L-R) Felecia Hatcher, CEO of Black Ambition; Leo Creer, Co-Founder and CTO of Expert IEP; Grand Prize Winner Antoinette Banks, CEO and Founder of Expert IEP; and Pharrell Williams, Founder of Black Ambition

Ten years ago, Antoinette Banks was in Los Angeles navigating the educational system for her daughter with autism and ADHD. Her child, often seen through the lens of labels, was in reality brimming with untapped potential. Confronted by a system that struggled to see beyond these diagnoses, Banks was propelled into action and developed a tool that would enable her child, and eventually many others, to thrive beyond conventional expectations.

Antoinette with her daughter. Photo by Sam Kempf of Coastal Farms

“They woke up the mama bear in me,” Banks said. “People were not honoring who my daughter was as a student. They were more focused on the overall diagnosis,” rather than recognizing her strengths and potential contributions.  

Years later, this experience fueled Banks to champion a personalized, inclusive educational approach for children with learning differences. Motivated by her daughter’s transformation into a high-achieving student, Banks, now a cognitive science student at the University of California, Davis, created a more sophisticated solution. Leveraging her background and expertise, she built an app that customizes Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) to each child’s strengths and needs, breaking free from traditional models. 

Designing Expert IEP: A Tool for Empowerment and Inclusion

Through her work, Banks, who is Black and Latina, sought to address another significant gap she had encountered while navigating the IEP process — a glaring lack of research and resources on autism tailored to families like her own. She made the app to not only meet the diverse needs of families but also to acknowledge and embrace the rich and unique experiences of underrepresented communities.

Banks spent many months researching and seeking feedback from educators, parents, and experts in special education and technology. As Expert IEP began to take shape, its potential became increasingly apparent. By integrating machine learning algorithms, Expert IEP could adapt to a child’s progress over time, suggesting adjustments to keep them on track toward achieving their full potential. The algorithms were built from a database of IEPs shared by families of color. But it was Banks’ human-centered approach that truly set Expert IEP apart. She understood that technology was only part of the solution. The other equally important part was empowering families to advocate for their children. Expert IEP was designed to demystify the often complex and opaque IEP process, providing parents with the knowledge and tools they needed to be active participants in their child’s education. 

A Leap Forward: The NewSchools Boost

NewSchools was drawn to Banks’ bold approach to reimagining the IEP process and, in 2022, awarded her a $150,000 grant to elevate her project. “The grant from NewSchools represented the first significant investment from a national funder in both my vision and the potential of Expert IEP,” Banks said. With it, she was able to recruit additional talent to help her expand the capabilities of Expert IEP.

Banks also gained access to a network of experts and resources that could help refine and scale her vision. She noted that NewSchools’ approach to supporting founders was like a “breath of fresh air.”

“I was given a platform to share my vision and collaborate with other education leaders who are really interested in moving the needle for diverse learners,” she said. Banks described the NewSchools network and communities of practice as a “powerful think tank” that helped her grow as a leader and make better choices.  

Changing Lives: Expert IEP’s Success 

One of the most significant indicators of success has been the academic progress by students using Expert IEP. In a pilot program in Oakland, California, students with IEPs at three schools demonstrated substantial improvement, with many advancing at least one letter grade in reading and math. Teachers and parents alike noted the app’s role in facilitating more meaningful, personalized educational experiences that resonated with students strengths and interests. Expert IEP helped students like Adam improve his reading and public speaking skills, culminating with him being able to confidently read a book aloud to his peers by year’s end. 

Beyond academic achievements, Expert IEP fostered a sense of empowerment among families. Parents who once felt overwhelmed by the IEP process now reported feeling more equipped and motivated to advocate for their children. “What matters most to me is that we put families at the heart of what we do”, Banks said. “If we want a student-centered education system and better outcomes, then we must empower and amplify the voices of families.” 

Reaching New Milestones: A Vision for the Future 

Banks’ work has caught the attention of other philanthropic organizations and investors. In 2023, Expert IEP received a $100,000 award as a YASS Prize quarterfinalist and the prestigious Pharrell Williams Black Ambition grand prize of $1 million. Banks is set to publicly launch her app, Expert Parent, in fall 2024 and is committed to expanding the reach of Expert IEP, aiming to serve an additional 10,000 families on a waitlist. As her business expands, she plans to introduce new products for both students and educators. 

Banks’ goal is not just to improve academic outcomes but to foster a more inclusive and equitable education system that recognizes and nurtures the potential in every child. Through Expert IEP, Banks has changed the trajectory for her daughter’s life and is laying the groundwork for all children, regardless of their learning differences, to have the opportunity to achieve their fullest potential. 

Check out our impact report for more stories of innovation and impact.