Mother Seeks Honors Status for Daughter in Spec. Ed. Classes

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For years, Judith Webb has driven a car plastered with bumper stickers touting her daughter's honor-roll standing. For years, her daughter's name has been printed in the local newspaper along with the names of other students who made the honor roll.

And now, Ms. Webb wants to see her daughter graduate with honors from Denbigh High School in Newport News, Va. But under the school district's rules, Laneka Shenae Webb cannot.

The 18-year-old has cognitive disabilities that have left her at a 3rd grade reading level, her mother said, and she has the general academic ability of an 8- or 9-year-old. But that, school officials said, is not why Ms. Webb can't wear the gold tassel that denotes an honors graduate at commencement ceremonies in June.

To graduate with honors in the 32,000-student Newport News district, a student must have earned a 3.0 cumulative grade-point average and have met all state requirements to receive a high school diploma.

Although Laneka Webb has been on the Newport News honor roll since 5th grade, her GPA is only 2.75. She has earned As and Bs, but the special education classes she takes are weighted lower than a regular, honors, or Advanced Placement class in computing her GPA. And rather than pursuing a diploma, she, like many special education students, will leave high school with a certificate of completion instead.

While disputes over academic honors are nothing new, the Webb family's plea has touched off debate in the local community.

It also illustrates a situation that school administrators are likely to confront more often as more children with disabilities finish school and more emphasis is placed on ensuring that all students meet high academic standards.

"If we do our job right, in fact, more and more of these youngsters will be graduating and coming closer and closer to the requirements," said Bruce Hunter, a senior associate executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. "And then, I promise you, this debate will end up in court."

Earning Their Honors

Ms. Webb said she did not know that her daughter would be precluded from graduating with honors--even if she had the required 3.0 GPA--because she will receive a certificate instead of a diploma.

"All I know is that when she walks across the stage, all they have to recognize the honor students is the gold tassel," said Ms. Webb, who first broached the subject of her daughter's graduating with honors earlier this year.

Ms. Webb plans to ask the school board this month to reconsider its rules and allow special education students who have made the honor roll to automatically become honor graduates.

Rosalynne Whitaker-Heck, a spokeswoman for the Newport News schools, said the district does not plan to make an exception for Laneka Webb or any other students--disabled or otherwise--who have made the honor roll but do not meet the honors-graduate criteria.

While special education students participate in the traditional commencement ceremonies, many of the district's schools also hold separate ceremonies to honor special education students, Ms. Whitaker-Heck said. But Ms. Webb declined her school's offer of a special ceremony.

"The bottom line is, because she has these disabilities it makes it a very emotional issue," Ms. Whitaker-Heck said. "But we need to make sure that students are receiving this distinction for the right reason, and that is because they earned it."

Currently, 448 of roughly 3,200 special education students are on the district's honor roll. Last year, two of the 301 seniors who graduated with honors were special education students, according to district officials.

Question of Standards

As far as the state is concerned, who is on the honor roll is a local matter, said Margaret N. Roberts, a spokeswoman for the Virginia education department. The state defines "graduating" from high school as successfully completing the required courses and passing the state literacy test, she said. Students who earn a certificate of program completion are not meeting the same academic standards.

And that, according to Kathleen Boundy, a co-director of the Center for Law and Education, a legal-advocacy group in Boston, is the problem.

"It's too common that schools aren't giving kids the full opportunity to fully participate in the curriculum to enable them to gain a diploma," Ms. Boundy said.

But to Judith Webb, the issue is about allowing special education students a degree of dignity.

"To other people it may just be a certificate and not really graduating," she said. "But to my daughter and the other special education students, it is a diploma."

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