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Access to a diploma

New program can help special-ed students get regular diploma

POSTED: February 1, 2009 12:30 a.m.
Tom Reed/The Times

Gainesville Middle School Language Arts co-teacher Tyler Perry works on a reading drill with students, clockwise from bottom left, Diego Rangel, Adela Mojica, Jonathan Rodriguez and Brandon Martinez. The co-teaching concept

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When Linda Brock watched her son, Dylan, graduate from Flowery Branch High School last May, her eyes brimmed with tears as her son strolled confidently in his cap and gown to pick up his diploma.

The 19-year-old had big dreams. He wanted to be a television broadcaster.

"That was like his ray of sunshine," Brock said. "That's what he wanted to do after high school."

Most recent high school graduates could attend college and go on to pursue a career in broadcasting. But not Dylan. He has Opitz syndrome, a rare disease that stumps his intellectual capacity at a sixth-grade level.

Dylan was one of nearly 180,000 special needs students in Georgia K-12 public schools last year, and was among the more than 62 percent of disabled high school seniors in Georgia who the state Department of Education reports did not graduate with a regular education high school diploma in 2008.

"Dylan has got a special education diploma, which is really not worth the paper it's printed on. No college recognizes it. It's not even a GED," Brock said. "... It tears me up. It really does. It's awful to know that all the other graduates are going off to face the real world - to have jobs, to go to college, have friends and drive - things we take for granted."

But with No Child Left Behind requiring local schools to have special education students perform at the same level as other students and graduate with regular diplomas, the state Department of Education increased the number of students eligible for courses leading to regular diplomas in 2007. Through Access courses implemented in August 2008, more students will be able obtain the 23 units of credit required for a regular education diploma.

Susan Macken, director of special education for Gainesville schools, said the new options could allow four more special education ninth-graders at Gainesville High School to graduate with a regular diploma. (In Hall County, 29 more students will be able to get regular diplomas.)

If disabled students obtain 23 units of Access classes and independent skills credits - and also pass the Georgia Alternate Assessment test administered in the 11th grade - the state will award students a regular education diploma.

"This is going to allow us to increase our regular diploma graduation rate even more," Macken said. "Because in the past ... we knew there would be some students who would not be successful in (high school) level classes and the (Georgia High School) Graduation Test, and the only option for them was the special ed diploma."

Traditionally, special education students defined their academic, functional and post-high school goals in plans they outlined with parents and teachers. Based on those plans, students are put on tracks toward a special education or regular education diploma.

The new Access courses allow students with significant cognitive disabilities to take core curriculum classes such as language arts, math, social studies and science that are aligned with general education courses. According to the DOE's outline for the Access curriculum, all instruction in the courses should be delivered in a manner that uses assistive technology to provide students the best opportunity to learn subject material.

Macken said the goal of special education programs is graduate students who had both a challenging academic curriculum and the opportunity to be functional members of society. In addition to learning core subject material, many special education students are taught how to use public transportation systems and perform household duties such as cooking.

With a high school diploma, Macken said students stand a better chance of attending a technical or vocational school after graduation and they are more likely to get a better paying job in the medical or automotive fields, for example.

Of Gainesville school system's 20 disabled students who graduated in May 2007, 65 percent are now in college or vocational training and another 30 percent are employed. Of Hall County school system's 155 disabled students who graduated in May 2007, 9.6 percent are now in college or vocational training and 35.5 percent are employed.

In November last year, the state recognized the Gainesville school system for meeting state targets for graduating special education students who met the requirements to get a regular diploma. The state also recognized the system for reducing the number of disabled students who dropped out of school.

On the job training in school
Many special needs students also participate in job-training programs in the latter half of high school to ease them into life after graduation. Some disabled students in Gainesville and Hall County schools spend four afternoons a week at Rehabilitation Industries of Northeast Georgia, where they learn how to function in a monitored work environment as they package gum for Wrigley's or assemble basic medical tools.

Paula Phillips, executive director of Rehabilitation Industries of Northeast Georgia, said RING is one of 22 community facilities statewide that facilitates employment for the disabled. She said she believes the new opportunities for disabled students to obtain regular high school diplomas may have a lasting impact on their job salaries, level of independence and quality of life.

"It's becoming more important in our world of work today. People want somebody with a high school diploma," Phillips said. "I think hopefully (the Access program) is going to open up more opportunities for employment. It takes away one of those barriers that's been there in the past."

Phillips said a disabled person who has a job has a better sense of self-confidence and identity.

According to the state Department of Labor, there are 940,000 Georgians with disabilities between ages 21 and 64, 276,000 of which want to work. The state department reports that if just 1 percent of those disabled residents obtained full-time jobs, they would funnel $40 million back into the Georgia economy. Nationally, 55.8 percent of disabled adults between the ages of 16 and 64 are unemployed.

In the classroom
Although Brock said Dylan was already employed as a grocery bagger at a local Publix grocery store before he graduated, she was disappointed with the result of his many years of schooling.

But even with the co-teaching method that has two teachers in one classroom with about 23 students, five of which are special needs students, Gainesville middle school English teacher John Ford and special education co-teacher Joab Rico said it's a real challenge getting special education students to perform at the level of their general education peers. Ford and Rico said each day they struggle to instruct special needs students who sometimes have short attention spans and short tempers.

"Some of these student, you can tell them the same thing 100 times and they don't get it. We've been over some of the same lessons 20 times and some of the students still don't get," Rico said.

"I've had kids in this class get frustrated, turn over their desk and scream," Ford said. "And you just don't know what's going to happen. And it's our job to de-escalate that."

With state standards to teach and these hurdles to overcome, the dry erase board in Ford's classroom Thursday posted the countdown to the state standardized testing week: "51 days until CRCT."

Good results aren't cheap
Like Ford and Rico's shared class that includes special education kids, Macken said 65 percent of students with disabilities spend 80 percent or more of their day in general education classrooms. But having two teachers in a classroom to accommodate the needs of general education and special education students is expensive.

Macken said the state provides additional funds to school systems for disabled students. She said the state's per student allotments are tied to a student's level of disability, and more funds are granted for students with severe disabilities as they require more services.

Since she began working in special education in the 1970's, Macken said there's always been a need for more funds in special education to be spent on co-teachers, educational tools to accommodate the learning methods of students with disabilities and technology to assist students in developing reading and writing skills.

Macken said she was "pleasantly surprised" to find the pending federal economic stimulus package could hold a golden nugget for special needs programs across the nation. According to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Bill, the federal government could dole out an additional $1.2 million to Gainesville schools and $5.4 million to Hall County schools' students with disabilities programs over the next two years.



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