Eight years ago, Antoinette Banks was in Los Angeles trying to get the education her nonverbal, neurodivergent daughter with autism spectrum disorder lawfully deserved. Doctors said her child was so severely impacted she would need 24/7 care forever. But Banks refused to let that prognosis dictate her daughter’s life.
Typically, schools create federally protected individualized education plans for students identified with “exceptionalities.” The IEP is based on assessments from various developmental, behavioral and academic specialists.
“All these experts pick apart your child,” Banks says. “They focus on what is lacking instead of celebrating neurodiversity and the positive contribution to the classroom these students can bring.”
In February 2021, Banks launched Expert IEP, a Davis-based tech company for IEP-classified students, families and educators that uses predictive analytics to tailor education plans. The business grew out of Banks’ frustration with the current model and how the process focuses on deficits. After leaving LA, she moved north to study cognitive science at UC Davis. She learned about predictive-based artificial intelligence tools, which could elevate contemporary IEP models with more accurate management and tracking. Banks used this knowledge to create Expert IEP, which also has a team of collaborators: a pediatrician, a school psychologist, a vice principal, teachers and parents.
In January the company’s first product, Expert Parent, will launch as an app that optimizes academic, behavioral, occupational and speech goals for quality and measurability to help parents of neurodivergent students. During her exhibit in November at the Stanford Neurodiversity Summit, Banks showcased an early version of the product and had overwhelming support for the price, design strategy and optimization goals. About 150 potential early adopters signed up for the mailing list, self-identifying as a parent or caregiver of a neurodivergent child, Banks says.
As the business grows, Banks plans to release two follow-up products for teachers and students, each with its own unique features. For example, in Expert Student, when a child hits yearly goals, the gamification and reward feature kicks in to celebrate the student’s hard-earned success.
“These children have so many goals to target and once they do, nobody celebrates them. Nobody says, ‘Look how much you overcame. …You’re a living, breathing person with a beautiful perspective on life that should be celebrated.’”Antoinette Banks, CEO, Expert IEP
“These children have so many goals to target and once they do, nobody celebrates them,” Banks says. “Nobody says, ‘Look how much you overcame. Look how you’re striving to make your own path. You’re more than what’s on a piece of paper. You’re a living, breathing person with a beautiful perspective on life that should be celebrated.’”
Cameron Law, executive director of the Carlsen Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship at Sacramento State, first saw Banks present at 1 Million Cups, a program that serves the region’s entrepreneurial community with feedback and resources. He was impressed and wanted to help connect her to nonprofits and school districts. He was already familiar with challenges in the education space because he used to run Social Venture Partners of Sacramento, a nonprofit created to give students a clear path to economic security and success.
“With that, I saw how the current IEP process is difficult to navigate and manage with a variety of stakeholders involved and a limited resource to bring them together in an impactful way,” says Law. “I saw how Expert IEP not only was a way for these stakeholders to come together for an effective process, but also to give a voice to the parents and students as this IEP is created.”
Currently raising pre-seed funds of $500,000, Expert IEP won the Social Entrepreneurship Award at the 2021 UC Davis Big Bang! Competition, the Social Impact Award at the 2021 Spark Venture Competition, and first place at PLASMA, a 12-week bootcamp for early-stage companies with UC Davis undergraduate founders. Banks wrote an autobiographical book, “Better Than a Diagnosis: A Single Parent’s Guide to Autism,” to help families navigate the autism diagnosis and get support before coming to Davis. With the launch of the business, Banks wants to support others, having seen firsthand how a diagnosis isn’t the last word.
“The initial report indicated she would need round-the-clock care for the rest of her life. … She’s now a verbal, straight-A student, shining athlete and advocate for Black neurodivergent voices.”Antoinette Banks, CEO, Expert IEP
“My daughter was initially diagnosed as ‘mentally retarded’ with an intellectual disability and a zero percent probability of hand-eye coordination and independence,” Banks says. “The initial report indicated she would need round-the-clock care for the rest of her life. … I still remember picking her up and running out of the diagnostic center, holding her close while whispering, ‘You are perfect!’ She learned determination, grit and perseverance. She’s now a verbal, straight-A student, shining athlete and advocate for Black neurodivergent voices.”
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