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Policymakers Are Turning Their Attention To the Transition From Special Education

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Kristen Doherty's parents never expected their brain-damaged daughter to gain such a firm toehold in the work world so quickly after graduating from her Montgomery County, Md., high school.

But, less than a month after graduation, she had surprised them on two counts: She was drawing a regular paycheck, and she had opened her first bank account.

Ms. Doherty achieved both milestones as a result of a program that works with the public schools and private firms to help train young people with disabilities in basic job-survival skills, find them employment, and ease their transition into the workplace by providing a job coach.

Ms. Doherty's training began a few months shy of graduation. Now, she works full time as a data-entry clerk at Marriott Corporation's headquarters in Bethesda, Md.--a position that comes with full benefits and pays more than the minimum wage.

"I feel like I'm important now," Ms. Doherty said, "that I have something I can do."

Such programs, though rare, are evidence of a growing recognition in the special-education field that providing 12 or 13 years of special-education classes is not enough to ensure that disabled young people will succeed in the real world.

Prompted by the parents of disabled children and a spate of studies in recent years indicating that many disabled young people are faring poorly after special education, 42 states have developed policies to help such students move from school to work or further training, according to the Transition Institute at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. Such services are legislatively mandated in at least 14 of those states.

And a bill expected to pass the Congress this fall could take that movement a step further. Under a provision in a House bill reauthorizing the Education of the Handicapped Act, schools would have to make "transition planning" a component of the education plans drawn up for every special-education student 14 or older.

"When you start to get the Congress's attention," said Mary Wagner, who is directing a national longitudinal study of handicapped students for the California-based research group SRI. International, "you know you've hit a salient issue."

Experts agree that the federal special-education law itself has been the biggest catalyst for the increased attention in the field to what is being called the "transition issue."

The Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 entitles every disabled child to a "free, appropriate education." Once a student reaches the age of 21, however, no such entitlement exists.

Parents whose children had grown up under the aegis of the special-education law suddenly realized that their children were, in the words of one expert, "dropping off a cliff."

The students faced a complex and often-confusing social-services system in which they might have to wait as long as 10 years for a spot in a sheltered workshop, a group home, or some other special program. For mildly handicapped adults, there was often no support system at all.

And, because many of the former students had no job experience or special training in work or social skills, they often floundered.

"In too many instances, students got all the way through the education system and then were leaving high school to go on to nothingness," said U.S. Representative Steve Bartlett, a Republican from Texas and the architect of the proposal to make transition a focus of student education plans. "They were sitting at home and watching tv."

"The lack of transition planning, has been, in my opinion, the single largest inadequacy in the Education of the Handicapped Act in the last decade," he added.

According to the SRI research, which is tracking 8,000 disabled youths nationwide, fewer than half of special-education students who have been out of school for one year have found a paying job. Among those who are working, less then 30 percent have full-time jobs.

In contrast, studies of the general population have shown that 62 percent of out-of-school youths between the ages of 16 and 21 are employed.

Moreover, noted Judy Schrag, director of the U.S. Education Department's office of special education programs, handicapped students are dropping out of school at twice the rate of their nonhandicapped peers.

Such studies have confirmed what a number of smaller regional studies had been finding since the early 1980's: Despite the best intentions of special education, prospects are grim for the nation's disabled students.

In 1983, the Education Department's office of special education and rehabilitative services under Madeleine C. Will--whose own disabled son was getting ready to leave special education--began to respond to parents' demands for help.

The office launched an initiative to underwrite research and demonstration projects aimed at helping students move from school into the adult world. Since then, more than 200 such projects have been funded, according to the Transition Institute. Half, however, have already expired.

"On the one hand," said Lizanne DeStefano, associate director of the Transition Institute, "the most progressive action in transition services has been in states where most of these projects were actually done."

But, she noted, the concept of transition was ill-defined by those early initiatives. As a result, the quality of many of those programs was uneven.

Many efforts, for example, focused exclusively on making job placement the goal.

"I think people have come to the realization that employment is only one aspect of a person's life," she said. "A janitor working from midnight until 6 A.M. doesn't have much social contact with peers."

And students who are entering the work world with no special training in social skills sometimes get into trouble.

"They have problems being able to take criticism or good-natured teasing from co-workers," she said. "In the classroom, very little of that is allowed to occur."

Even successful programs, however, died off after local governments refused to step in and pick up where the federal government left off.

"The services overlap," said Charles McNelly, who oversaw a now-defunct demonstration project operated by United Cerebral Palsy of Prince George's and Montgomery counties in Maryland, "so many agencies found it difficult to get the funding commitment to do that."

The program through which Kristen Doherty found a job differs from some other transition programs in its strong emphasis on involving private industry.

Funded through the Marriott Foundation, the program is administered by TransCen Inc., a nonprofit community organization in Montgomery County established for the sole purpose of assisting disabled students move from school to work.

In addition to giving her lessons in resume-writing and helping enhance her job skills, the program, known as "Bridges," provided training for the employers and employees who would be working with Ms. Doherty and other individuals like her. It paid for a job coach who accompanied Ms. Doherty on her initial interview, stayed with her during her first few weeks on the job, and now checks in periodically to ensure that her transition continues to go smoothly.

"Certainly, the business community is beginning to look more and more to people with disabilities to meet their employment needs," said Richard Luecking, president of TransCen. He said the Americans With Disabilities Act, a landmark measure approved by the Congress this year to bar discrimination against people with disabilities, has heightened that attention.

Approaches to the transition issue, however, vary widely.

In many states, transition efforts have been spawned at the state level by collaboration between education departments and the various agencies providing adult services for handicapped individuals--a result, in part, of efforts in general education to coordinate services to reach those most in need.

Some school districts in recent years, such as the Whittier school district in California, have begun to require a 13th year of study for special-education students. The final year is meant to be spent training individuals in skills for work and independent living or placing them in internship positions.

Other programs use case managers to visit with families as their children near graduation to educate them on the kinds of options available to disabled young people.

Few states, however, are making transition planning part of the education-plan process.

"Most keep the transition plan separate, but include it as part of a regular individualized-education-plan meeting," Ms. DeStefano said. "The IEP is binding, and the transition plans include other agencies so schools don't want to be bound to provide services they cannot control."

Though potentially the most far-reaching of the provisions in the federal measure, the proposed inclusion of transition planning in education plans is just one facet of a bill that emphasizes transition issues.

Both the House and Senate versions of the bill, for example, would provide grants for such projects undertaken jointly by state education and vocational-rehabilitation agencies.

The legislation is currently stalled over negotiations on an unrelated provision in the law. (See Education Week, Sept. 5, 1990.)

Experts are divided over whether modifying the IEP process will make a difference in the lives of disabled students.

A study conducted by Eugene Edgar, a professor of education at the University of Washington, found that such changes have little impact on students.

"We asked parents about their children's transition plans, and they didn't know what we were talking about," he said.

"And parents were supposed to be carrying it out, coming down to the voc.-rehab. office and signing up," he said. "But there's no one there to make sure it happens."

Most experts agree, however, that the federal proposal will heighten awareness of the issue among rank-and-file special educators.

"It asks them to do something they probably aren't doing already," Ms. DeStefano said.

A potential drawback is that many special educators have no training in that area.

As a special-education teacher six years ago, Ms. DeStefano said she felt unprepared to assist her students make the transition to the world beyond the school.

"I knew nothing about vocational education or job placement," she recalled. "I recognized it was something kids needed, but it wasn't in my job description."

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