Parents of special needs students back diploma bill

By Katheran Wasson Published:

Debbie McCoy’s 16-year-old daughter Brittany will walk across the stage with her peers on graduation day, but she won’t leave the Frankfort Convention Center with a diploma.

Instead, Brittany, who has learning disabilities, will walk out with a certificate that says she completed her time at Franklin County High School. Her mother calls that distinction heartbreaking.

“That certificate stops her dreams – how do you tell a child that?” Debbie told The State Journal earlier this week.

“She works very hard, she hates to miss school, and she loves to learn, but because she has a learning disability, they don’t expect her to go farther than that.”

Legislation now making its way through the state House would change the name of the document from “certificate of attainment” to “alternate diploma.”

Senate Bill 43 won unanimous approval in the Senate and cleared a House panel Tuesday. It now awaits a vote by the full House.

Debbie says the legislation would give her daughter a better chance of landing a job after graduation. Brittany, who suffered brain damage from a lack of oxygen during childbirth, dreams of being a teacher. 

“It would mean that she has the chance that every other student has to accomplish her goals – a certificate crushes that,” said Debbie, who also has two children without learning disabilities.

About 4,100 students would be affected annually, starting with the 2013 graduating class, said the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Dennis Parrett, D-Elizabethtown.

Franklin County currently has 54 students who would qualify, said Jami Miller, the school district’s director of special education.

These severely disabled students make up less than 1 percent of Kentucky’s total student population, and they complete an “alternate portfolio” to graduate high school.

Brittany spends part of her day in special education classes, but also attends art class, gym and choir. Debbie says her classmates pitch in to help her understand the material.

Like other special needs students, she can stay in high school until she’s 21. Her mother says she will spend the last two years in a vocational training program so she can work after graduation.

Without a diploma, the federal government doesn’t consider Brittany a true graduate. That would change if SB 43 becomes law, and Kentucky schools would see a slight boost in their graduation rates.

According to data released by the Kentucky Department of Education in August, the rates at local high schools would improve between 1 and 6 percent if severely disabled kids were counted as graduates.

Parrett says he’s aware of that, but it isn’t why he introduced the bill – his first as a senator.

His daughter, Kristen, is a 17-year-old special education student at Central Hardin High School. He says he learned during a meeting with her teachers that she would receive a certificate when she graduates next year – not a diploma.

“I had the bill drafted right away because I just knew it wasn’t right,” he told The State Journal after the House Education Committee unanimously approved it Tuesday.

“I have a vested interest in this, but I actually did it for all the special needs children across the state, now and in the future.”

To earn an alternate diploma, students will be required to meet a set of graduation requirements designed especially for them by their schools. 

A committee of educators tests their abilities and sets specific annual goals they must meet – some academic, but many to help them gain independence as they grow older. SB 43 doesn’t change that process, just the name of the document students receive on graduation day.

Democratic Rep. Derrick Graham, a teacher at Frankfort High School, said the change “would do wonders” for some of his students.

During Tuesday’s meeting, he said that some special needs students lose their enthusiasm for school when they learn they aren’t working toward a diploma – some even consider dropping out.

He asked Parrett to add an emergency clause to the bill so it could take effect in time for 2012 graduates. The provision would allow the bill to take effect as soon as the governor signs it, instead of the typical 90 days after the legislature adjourns.

Parrett told The State Journal that Department of Education staff has advised him the bill may not pass in time if he adds the emergency clause as a floor amendment. 

He’s considering legislation next year that would allow schools to retroactively award diplomas to special needs students who request it.


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