Raising Expectations for Special Education Students

On a Tuesday evening in 2019, about 80 parents and students gathered in Archer High School in Lawrenceville, Georgia. They were there for a night of post-secondary education planning. They reviewed statistics, heard school counselor recommendations, and spoke with college representatives. It’s a common enough scene–many high schools host college and career nights to help students and parents plan for the future, but this one had a twist: it was designed specifically for special education students with disabilities and their families.

Once students, especially students of color, are labeled with a disability, they “are more likely to be in the most restrictive environments,” which often limits that student’s access to the general education curriculum, said Erin Kilpatrick, the high school counselor who organized the event. “To be successful and have a chance to go to college…[students] need access to general education classes and honors classes.”

That’s why Kilpatrick organized the post-secondary planning night, which included presentations from representatives of disability support offices at three colleges. She has seen throughout her career that low expectations at the high school level often mean that students with disabilities and their families are unprepared for post-secondary education opportunities. She has, for example, received calls from parents asking about their student’s options for a college education after they’ve already graduated and left the school. In Kilpatrick’s observation, only a fraction of students with disabilities pursue post-secondary education or are working within a few years of graduation. For the 2019 post-secondary planning night, her team predicted an attendance of 15 to 20, but ended up hosting four times that amount. The event was tailored to parents of students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) and 504 plans, both of which lay out specific environmental and academic accommodations for a student with a diagnosed disability.

According to Kilpatrick, a partnership between educators and parents of students with disabilities gives parents the knowledge and social capital to be the best advocates for their children. Such partnerships also allow school counselors and special education teachers to tailor the post-secondary options to the child based on the child’s strengths, abilities and interests.

One of Kilpatrick’s concerns is when a student with disabilities becomes siloed onto an IEP diploma track. Unlike a general education high school diploma, which students with an IEP are eligible to obtain, an IEP diploma does not fulfill requirements to join the military or get accepted into a two- or four-year colleges and universities. Parents may not know this and often rely on the expertise of school systems, which may not always push students with disabilities towards a general education diploma, said Kilpatrick.

High school exit exams can be another barrier to students with disabilities obtaining a general education diploma. Nine states require a passing score on the high school exit exam to receive a high school diploma, according to Education Week. During research for her dissertation, Kilpatrick met a parent whose twins had a specific learning disability and took the high school exit exam a combined total of 25 times. The hours dedicated to the exit exam came out as the equivalent to several days of high school life and could’ve been devoted to learning skills, such as job interview practice, said Kilpatrick. Georgia, where Kilpatrick works, suspended the high school exit exam in 2015.

Leslie Lipson, a lawyer with 21 years of experience in legal educational and disability advocacy, said that the biggest systemic barrier that people with disabilities face is that they “are devalued as a whole in our culture.” The K-12 education system is a reflection of cultural and social experience at large, she added.

Kilpatrick recommended that parents and students explore all of the options available to them regarding post-secondary education, starting in ninth grade. This includes the different academic tracks and career clusters available, as well as advocating for check-ins about those academic goals at every annual IEP meeting. Kilpatrick also encouraged families to inquire with testing providers about accommodations for the SAT, ACT and AP exams.

It is also important that students and parents know that they can advocate for or request honors, advanced placement, gifted and dual enrollment classes, said Kilpatrick. She also said that parents and students must remain mindful about the changes to legal protections when a student transitions from a K-12 education to post-secondary education options. Specifically, the change from IDEA protections, which ensure k-12 students have free access to diagnostic and special education services, to ADA or ADAAA protections, which ensure equal rights and protections for students with disabilities on college campuses and beyond.

From her dissertation research, Kilpatrick cited a solid support system as a factor in success after high school for students with disabilities. Many caregivers she talked to found knowledge-sharing between families helpful. Those networks may be found through school connections or other avenues, such as Parent to Parent, an organization that offers resources to parents and families of children with disabilities. Parents spend emotional labor, often invisible to schools and educators, said Kilpatrick, and they requested that educators have more empathy towards students with disabilities.

According to Kilpatrick, school systems have to re-envision the possibilities for special education and students with disabilities. This can be done by providing training for educators and instilling a willingness to learn from families of students with disabilities. By holding high expectations for students with disabilities, educators reinforce the idea that these students and families “deserve to be supported,” and “deserve to have great life outcomes,” said Kilpatrick. “Disabilities are not homogeneous.”

This article originally appeared here.

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