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What Happens for High Schoolers Who Need More Than 4 Years?

The class of 2024 started high school during the pandemic, but schools are finding that more and more students with disabilities need extended education support, sometimes as much as twice as long as the typical four-year high school allots.

That can make planning difficult for students and families, according to Erin Rosensteel, the transitions coordinator for the Hershey, Pa., public schools.

“Sometimes, you have to have hard conversations, especially with the kids who are thinking they want to be a nurse or a doctor and they’re not really cognitively equipped for that kind of academic rigor,” Rosensteel said. “You need to dig a little deeper: ‘What is it about being a doctor that you’re into? Is it the helping component? Is it just working in a hospital?’ You need to break it down to the elements of that type of work and maybe pursue that.”

While students across the board lost academic traction in the last four years, studies find the pandemic-related disruptions have been particularly hard and long-lasting for secondary students with disabilities.

Even at a time of historic drops in overall national reading and math performance, 8th grade students with disabilities trailed well behind their general education peers in math and reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Among 8th graders with disabilities (not counting those with 504 plans) 69 percent performed below basic achievement in reading, 1 percentage point worse than in 2019, and 77 percent performed below basic in math, 4 percentage points worse than in 2019. (By contrast, about a quarter of 8th grader general education students in reading and about a third in math scored below basic. That left secondary students with little time to recover within the standard four years of high school.

According to the U.S. Education Department’s most recent report to Congress, about 3 out of 4 students with disabilities graduate from high school with a regular diploma. While students with intellectual or multiple disabilities are least likely to earn a standard diploma—less than half for both—federal data also show 65 percent or fewer students with emotional disturbances or hearing impairment earn regular diplomas.

In a nationally representative survey in April, a majority of district leaders told the EdWeek Research Center they are providing ongoing academic support for students older than 18, with more than 70 percent of those respondents providing social-emotional support and postsecondary transition help.

“I think the transition side was the hardest part,” said John Eisenberg, the executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Special Education. “A lot of those programs weren’t designed to be virtual, like in their career and tech-ed programs, because a lot of it requires face-to-face skill sets. For a lot of those kids, transition really did not happen.”

One nationwide study in 2020 found little more than half of eligible secondary students received transition support, and they were more frequently focused on the students with the most severe disabilities.

In the April survey, 47 percent of district leaders told the EdWeek Research Center that they serve more 18 and older students with disabilities now than in 2019, and 52 percent of respondents in districts serving students ages 18 and older said they have been offering a wider array of services to older students in special education.

Kimberly Caputo, a senior counsel for special education at the McAndrews Law firm in Philadelphia, said she has seen increasing numbers of students with underdeveloped transition plans in their individualized education programs who will need special education past a four-year high school track. “Now, if you’re in 5th grade or 8th grade, there’s time to fix it,” Caputo said. “But even as early as middle school, most kids have already set their eyes on the turning 18 graduation prize. So if you haven’t had the pathway discussions and preparation, … to try to then jam that work into a 19-year-old’s IEP, good luck.”

Kirsten Scheurich, Hershey’s special education director, agreed, noting that older students can choose to walk in graduation ceremonies in either their current 12th grade year or the year in which they earn a diploma.

“Regardless of how severe their disability is, our students are often very socially aware,” Scheurich said. “So if they walk [for graduation] in their 12th grade year with their cohort of peers, and then they come back and all their peers are gone, for a lot of them, that’s a hard pill to swallow. If you’re not careful, they feel like failures. We have to be really careful about how we approach those years after 12th grade, to make sure that we’re honoring the students’ well-being and self-confidence.”

This year, partly in response to academic and social-emotional-learning loss, Pennsylvania permanently extended its age for special education services to 22, joining Alaska, Illinois, and Utah. Michigan provides support the longest, to 25, with other states ranging from 18 to 21.

For example, Monique Braxton, a spokeswoman for the Philadelphia schools, said the district serves 2,118 special education students 18-22, but only 36 get an extra year of services under the age extension.

Transition programs are more effective when students are actively involved in planning early on; studies find while students with cognitive impairments had more challenges during transition, student engagement was more linked to successful transitions across disabilities.

“People have been trying to partner with a lot of community entities and try to double down the number of offerings that they do have” for older students, Eisenberg said.

In Hershey, for example, the district works with community partners including the Hershey Medical Center to provide multiple internships over the course of the year. So, for example, a student who is interested in the medical field but wouldn’t make it into medical school can explore related jobs like technicians and patient transportation.

Hershey is also working to get students an earlier start in planning career options. For 90 minutes a day, nine district students travel from their schools to the PAES lab (short for Practical Assessment Exploration System) in the district’s central office. The lab, launched last year, simulates real workplaces, where, with peer colleagues, students work through some 260 work tasks related to computing, sewing, woodworking, commercial restaurants, and other industries. Teachers act as supervisors while gauging students’ effectiveness and interest in careers.

“They’re learning not only hard skills that employers are looking for but soft skills like being on time, communicating with your employer, conflict resolution, and problem-solving,” Rosensteel said. “Those are areas where we’re seeing a lot of deficits.”

The district also hired a social-emotional-learning coach to help students whose social development has been delayed. Over time, older students also learn to understand their own needs and advocate disability accommodations that they could qualify for in work or higher education.

Preparing to advocate on their own behalf is one of the most crucial skills, both for students going into college or into work, Eisenberg said.

“There’re a lot of unique programs tied to state and federal funding for transition that people with the most significant disabilities can tap into,” Eisenberg said, “But for our higher-functioning kids who did not get that standard diploma, who then don’t go on to additional training, what are they doing in terms of employment? I’m worried it’s paycheck-to-paycheck sort of living, which is not what we want for all our kids.”

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