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On Wednesday, February 6th,  2013, my daughter declared, “this is best day of my life.” 

That followed a program (IEP) review meeting that she attended, along with our home school district CSE chairperson and district school psychologist, and her attending school’s two program directors (who are special education teachers), her teaching assistant, her school psychologist, her guidance counselor, and her parents.

 At that meeting we made a life changing decision to remove “high school diploma” from her IEP in the middle of her 10th grade year.  She was delighted, I was depressed.  It’s not like I was surprised by the recommendation from her program director.  He had been proposing this since last spring.  And it seems everyone else on the CSE (Committee on Special Education) agreed with this change.  It means that my daughter will no longer be held to New York State academic requirements.

 They felt that the academic challenge was too great for her, that given how she had performed on class work and midterms, that passing the Regents exams was a big stretch.   They reasoned that without having to work towards passing the Regents exams they could be freed up to teach only the more relevant content, and reduce the stress for her.

 I got it.  But, I felt like I failed.  Since she was 5 years old I had been searching for an educational approach that would be stimulating, relevant, meaningful, useful, and appropriate, leveraging her strengths while building up her weak areas – all the while earning the diploma that I thought she deserved.  In that search she had been in 5 different academic programs.

Until recently, a high school diploma did not seem completely out of reach for Isabelle.  New York State had offered an alternate set of exams called the Regents Competency Tests (RCTs) for students who did not pass the Regents exams.  I had been hearing about this for years at SEPTA meetings and parents of teens several years ahead of Isabelle had recommended this as the “solution” for a diploma.  The CSE had also endorsed this approach.

On the other hand, parents of students who seemed to perform at my daughter’s level wondered why I was so obsessed about a high school diploma anyhow.  They figured that their child would not be attending college, that they would not be in the competitive job market, and that their child would qualify for government support, that a diploma would be a useless document, and that a curriculum that focused on earning a diploma would be a waste of time.

My philosophy in raising a child with a disability has been to aim high, and to insist that teachers and administrators set high expectations too.  As the quote goes,  ‘Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss it you will land among the stars.’ (Les Brown)

But low and behold, the Regents eliminated the RCTs as an option for students entering 9th grade in September 2011.  When did I learn about this?  June 2011, a month after our CSE meeting that planned for her freshman year.   There went our strategy that we had in place for 10 years.  (Apparently the Board of Regents had been planning to eliminate the RCTs  for years but no one ever told me.)

So when Isabelle entered 9th grade in September 2011, she was enrolled in Regents prep classes, but with no RCT as her safety net.

The heads of special education in Westchester County’s public school districts did not support this change and were very concerned about students like my daughter that were the “gray area”.  The regional association of special education directors held a meeting and invited Becky Cort, then head of NY State Special Education and a Regent to a meeting.  A panel of professionals spoke about the negative implications and consequences of the decision to eliminate the RCTs.  I then had an opportunity to speak from the audience and shared my concerns as a parent. There were lots of angry and frustrated professionals in that room.  But the State Education representatives were not moved.

Last August I wrote a blog post about my frustration with a proposal by the Regents to replace the RCT with a “safety net” for students with IEPs to earn a NY State with allowance for lower scores on the Regents exams, the same exams that all high school students must take to earn a Regents diploma in New York State.  

But despite my lack of belief and support for this new plan (oh, by the way, I did submit a comment to the Regents but never got a response) I continued to push my daughter  in her modified academics program.  “Modified” means that the content for the subject is modified from the general education curriculum and taught by a special education teacher  in a way to enable students with learning disabilities to absorb the core content enough to be able to pass the Regents test for that subject.  If this sounds to you like teaching to the test, you are right.  The teachers focus on teaching students how to answer questions that would be asked on the Regents exam, and have no time to enable the students to be creative and explore special areas of interest.  (For example, my daughter has never been assigned projects to do at home or group assignments that required weekend collaboration).

But I thought or hoped that being in a classroom that focused on the core curriculum would be beneficial towards her intellectual and social development.  I thought of the brain as a muscle that needed to be exercised and that not pushing to the maximum would mean atrophy.  I also thought that a high school diploma meant she would have a better chance of living an independent life as an adult.  (It’s true that I ignored those parents who told me about students who earned a diploma but could not function in any workplace).

I was disappointed that her teachers could not use teaching methods that had proven effective (because I was told they had to drill for the test and teach test taking techniques).  As I spent time with my daughter on her homework, I started to realize how meaningless and uninspiring her school work was to her. 

For some students who had significant disabilities, and were never on a diploma track (ie, not in classes that taught core curriculum) but were working towards achieving their individual education plan (IEP) goals, they would receive the IEP diploma. In 2012 there was a proposal to replace the IEP “diploma” (which was never really a diploma but just a certificate that indicated a student met his IEP goals).  The Regents renamed this certificate the Skills and Achievement Commencement Credential for Students with Severe Disabilities.  It is intended for students who are eligible to take the New York State Alternate Assessment (NYSAA) which can be up to 1% of students in a school district.  Here is more information about the certificate 

I had been aware of that plan.  (And that was not the plan for my daughter.) But to my surprise, I just learned about an additional option – apparently announced in September. 

Here is what I found:

   ‘In September 2012, the Board of Regents directed staff to develop a commencement credential documenting attainment of the Career Development and Occupational Studies (CDOS) learning standards for other students with disabilities, including students with disabilities who are unable to earn a regular diploma.  The Regents supported development of proposed regulations in accordance with the following guiding principles:

  • In addition to academic preparation, students need to be able to demonstrate knowledge and skills relating to career development, integrated learning and universal foundation skills essential for success in the workplace (CDOS Learning Standards).
  • Students need to be actively engaged in career planning and preparation and their participation in career awareness, exploration and preparation activities should be valued, encouraged and recognized.
  • Students should participate in meaningful career development opportunities that are developmentally and individually appropriate, in consideration of the students’ strengths, preferences and interests and that provide real world work experiences.

The proposed regulations are expected to strengthen existing transition planning and implementation for students with disabilities because they emphasize student involvement in career planning; require districts to offer opportunities for students to engage in work-based learning activities and instruction toward the CDOS Learning Standards in order to earn this credential; and provides a student with documentation on his/her readiness for entry-level employment (employability profile).

The Certificate would not be considered a regular high school diploma in accordance with State standards or for federal accountability purposes and a student with a disability who exited school with this Certificate continues to be eligible for a free appropriate public education until the end of the school year in which the student turns age 21 or until the receipt of a regular high school diploma, whichever shall occur first.  (more here on the special education amendment)

 So this is now the next option for Isabelle:  a certificate but not a diploma.

For Isabelle, this means less homework, less demands at school, and no diploma.  For me this means, yet again, letting go of a goal and a dream, something most parents take for granted.

 If anyone wants to hear about this new certificate, come to the meeting on March 13, 2013 where  Pleasantville School District’s head of special education, Dr. Carolyn McGuffog will discuss the new NYS HS Diploma Credential.  7pm at the Pleasantville High School Library/Media Center