Special Report
College & Workforce Readiness

Students Face Uncertain Paths After Special Education

By Christina A. Samuels — May 29, 2015 7 min read
As part of a job-training program, Maritza Rivera, 19, gets ready to receive and deliver supplies in the operating room at Novant Prince William Medical Center in Manassas, Va. The program, known as Project SEARCH, enables students with disabilities to spend their last year of high school interning at the hospital.

Before the law that governs special education was enacted 40 years ago, youths with disabilities were often marginalized. Only about 1 in 5 children with disabilities was enrolled in public schools in 1970, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

The legislation that later came to be known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act made a dramatic difference. Students with disabilities now have the right to be educated in public schools with their nondisabled peers and to be prepared for a positive and productive life after school.

But many families and young adults experience the transition to life after graduation not as a launching pad, but as a cliff.

Under the special education law, schools have responsibilities, including transportation, therapy, and job training. The school is a one-stop shop, and IDEA offers a strong structure for receiving services.

Life in the wider community, on the other hand, is like going to a restaurant, asking for a menu, and being told there is none, said Barb Ziemke, a senior advocate for the National Parent Center on Transition and Employment, a new project of the Minneapolis-based PACER—for Parent Advocacy Coalition for Educational Rights—Center.

She said families have to puzzle out the menu items themselves—going to different “restaurants” if necessary. And though transition planning is a legal requirement of the IDEA and must start no later than age 16, some families feel that the topic is broached too late, or is too general, to be helpful.

“I had rights within special education,” said Ms. Ziemke, who has a 26-year-old son, Brandon, with an intellectual disability. “My child had rights. There were processes, there was structure, and there was predictability. Once you leave high school and you’re in that adult-service world, even if you have services, you don’t have many rights.”

Loss of Structure

Families, too, may find themselves so consumed with the everyday work of making sure their child’s K-12 schooling needs are met that meaningful transition conversations are put off. Leaving school seems like a far-off prospect when a child is still in elementary school.

“We lose track of what do we want this adult to look like,” said Crystal Prall, an Alexandria, Va., mother of 20-year-old twin sons, Robbie and Cullen, who have intellectual disabilities. “You’re so wrapped up in whatever fire is going on right now.”

In the best of all worlds, the life of a young adult with a disability would be as well supported after leaving school as it was when the student was covered under the IDEA, said Melody Musgrove, the director of the federal office of special education programs, and a state director of special education in Mississippi for six years. The young adult would have received training in how to meet his or her unique educational needs when attending college, for example, or adult services would be in place that offer job training and transportation.

“The services are seamless, they’re already aligned, the student knows what to expect, the parents know what to expect,” said Ms. Musgrove, “That’s a great example of how we’d like this to look.”

No one would say those seamless connections are in place for all students covered under the IDEA. But the outlook for students with disabilities after graduation is not wholly negative—just mixed.

Ups and Downs

For example, the four-year graduation rate for students with disabilities is on the rise and now stands at 62 percent as of the 2012-13 school year, the most recent year that the Education Department required all states to calculate graduation rates using a uniform method. When the department first started requiring that uniform calculation, in 2010-11, the graduation rate for students with disabilities was 59 percent.

But variations among states make it difficult to draw a conclusion from the numbers alone. States have the discretion to create diploma options for students with disabilities that may reflect less-rigorous requirements.

On the education and employment front, the picture is also mixed. For instance, a federal study that tracked youths with disabilities eight years after they left school found that 60 percent had enrolled in college, not much lower than the 67 percent reported for youths without disabilities. But students with disabilities were more likely to be enrolled in a community college or vocational school, as opposed to a four-year-college, than their typically developing peers.

Sixty percent of youths with disabilities were also employed for pay outside the home eight years after leaving high school, compared with 66 percent of all youths. However, young adults with disabilities reported earning less money than their nondisabled peers—$10.40 per hour compared with $11.40.

Local, state, and federal initiatives are underway to offer more supports to youths with disabilities. Data from the Education Department, which requires states to report on whether they’re meeting the federal law’s requirements to offer transition planning, show an average compliance rate of 87 percent in the 2012-13 school year.

Advocates are also pinning hope on the newly enacted Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, which was 11 years overdue for reauthorization when Congress approved it last year. The law governs the work of the country’s employment, adult education, and vocational-rehabilitation programs, and the revised law offers significant support to youths and adults with disabilities.

State vocational-rehabilitation agencies, for example, must make “pre-employment transition services” available to all students with disabilities, and students with significant disabilities are to be offered extended services to prepare them for jobs for which they earn regular wages in “integrated” settings alongside people without disabilities.

“I don’t know that there’s ever been any other act that has put quite as much emphasis on transition,” said A. Anthony Antosh, a professor of special education at Rhode Island College in Providence who is working with that state to improve its youth and adult services for people with disabilities. “The impact has the potential to be good.”

Increased Focus

The rehabilitation-services administration, which operates out of the Education Department, has for the first time teamed up with the office of special education programs to operate a technical-assistance center to help states improve student transition planning. The center, which started its work in 2014 and is housed at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, works with vocational-rehabilitation agencies, states, and school districts.

Other policy at the federal level is also driving a closer look at student outcomes. The office of special education has switched the focus of its state monitoring to more clearly measure how students are doing academically and whether they are graduating on time.

At the school level, educators are working to address several issues that affect students’ success when they leave school—and that will ensure that those students aren’t getting counseled out of high school entirely for bad behaviors linked to their disabilities. For example, they are starting to look at their population of students with disabilities when it comes to disproportionate use of school discipline polices such as expulsion or suspension. Elementary and secondary students with disabilities are more than twice as likely to receive an out-of-school suspension than their typically developing peers—13 percent to 6 percent, respectively, according to 2011-12 data collected by the Education Department’s office for civil rights.

The department also found that students with disabilities ages 3-21 represent a quarter of students arrested and referred to law enforcement, though they make up 12 percent of the student population.

Strong self-advocacy skills are an important ingredient of school success, inside and outside the classroom, but special education is also seen by some students to stress compliance over forging one’s own path. Several research-based programs are underway to help students learn how to find their own voices.

Reaching For ‘Something’

At the family level, however, the policy landscape is still fractured, said Ms. Ziemke, the advocate with the PACER center.

After years of working with families and reading individualized education programs, she suggests that schools focus on a realistic assessment of a student’s strengths. That means getting beyond taking notes on what the students say they want to do, which may not be realistic.

“Families want to know: What can I expect, what can he actually do? Can he work eight hours a day, or should he stay for four hours? That level of information is very seldom provided through the assessments that are done,” Ms. Ziemke said.

Another idea is to create a centralized entity where families can be connected to all the services that they may need once their child leaves high school, she said. That means getting rehabilitation agencies, schools, job counselors, and employers talking to each other. Some places already do this, but often teachers are at as much of a loss as parents.

“I don’t want to leave out how hard so many professionals are working,” Ms. Ziemke said. “A lot of the transition teachers have a frustration, too. They know they’re supposed to prepare these students for this ‘something’ that’s out there, and they can’t get their arms around that ‘something,’ either.”

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