In Episode #1, I talked about a parent’s mindset in terms of working with their local school district. In Episode #2, I’ll be focusing on a parent’s mindset regarding their own child.

As we come to the close of the school year, there will be many students on an IEP who will be graduating with a high school diploma. However, there will also be many more students who will receive a “Credential of Completion” in lieu of a diploma. I want to look at how the school district places students on a “Credential of Completion” by removing them from the “diploma track” and why parents agree.

To be clear, I am not implying that every student on an IEP is a candidate for the diploma track. I am clarifying the fact that each and every year, scores of students are denied a diploma because they were unlawfully removed from the diploma track.

Believing in your child’s highest potential and advocating for your IEP team to hold high expectations and write challenging goals is key in developing an IEP that will carry them through their school career and set them up for success once they leave high school.

I have many examples of clients who didn’t believe their child was capable of graduating with a high school diploma and were fully prepared to accept the district’s offer for their child to receive a credential of completion and placement in a severely handicapped class. An SH or “functional” class only requires teachers to teach “life skills.” When a student is removed from the diploma track, the law does not require teachers to offer a general education curriculum. In a Life Skills class, teachers do not deliver the required reading, writing, and math classes, or any other core curriculum class that all other students must complete in order to receive a diploma.

I explained to these parents that they did not have to agree to a “Life Skills” class and that they were endowed under IDEA the right to advocate for their child to have the school district develop an appropriate IEP and placement that required the student to remain on the diploma track. After assisting and advocating for those parents to implement their parent rights and the rights of their child, to their complete surprise and awe, those parents witnessed their child graduate with a high school diploma.

Somewhere along the way, these parents agreed to internalize the belief that their child was disabled and therefore they felt grateful that teachers were willing to teach their child and put up with their child’s behaviors at school. They bought into the idea that their child wasn’t capable of learning, and they didn’t expect teachers to go out of their way to do anything different for their child than they would for any other student. Then they took on the limiting belief that their child just wasn’t good enough to have the same opportunities as a neurotypical child. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

No one can predict your child’s potential, not even you. And especially not any school district staff member. Not even a psychologist who tells you your child has a deficient IQ score and therefore, isn’t capable of learning.  No one has the right to play God and pretend to know what a child is capable of achieving.

I have seen psychoeducational IEE test results show a much higher IQ score than the school district psychoeducational assessment because the school psych wasn’t able to test the student properly. Conversely, students who have average IQ scores are also removed from the diploma track for all sorts of reasons like maladaptive or self-injurious behaviors, mental health issues, school refusal, foster care, or minors on probation.

I also have seen a psyched IEE find the student eligible for other categories in comparison to the district assessment, which uncovered the true origin of the student’s disability. A few of these other disabling conditions that are seldom identified through school district assessments and can include things like anxiety, depression, mood disorder, auditory processing disorder, vision processing disorder, sensory processing disorder and specific learning disability.

Let me give you a few examples of my specific cases in which the school district intended to remove the student from the diploma track.

I had a client whose parent hired me when he entered 7th grade and the district wanted to change his placement to a severely handicapped class and remove him from the diploma track. We advocated for him to remain on the diploma track and won placement in both special education and general education classes with the supports, services, and accommodations he needed to learn and pass his classes. Once he entered high school, he no longer needed special education classes and we learned that he was highly gifted in Math. He earned the highest grades in Math AP classes, including Calculus! During one of our Annual IEP meetings in high school, his AP Calculus Math teacher made this statement about my client, “In my teaching career, I’ve only had one other student who was as gifted in Math.” This student ended up graduating high school with HIGH HONORS Summa cum laude!

Now, just think about the travesty of what could have been. The district would have been successful in unlawfully denying this young man the opportunity to be educated alongside his typical developing peers and destroy his potential for life after high school because he would not have received an education. Today, he is thriving as a young adult. He enjoys art, actively participates in Special Olympics, and wins metals for running competitions, is receiving his AA degree in Junior College, and will soon be working at his uncle’s accounting firm.

If the parent had bought into believing that her son wasn’t capable of receiving a diploma and allowed the school district to remove him from the diploma track, he would have been placed in the severely handicapped class and we would have never realized his potential and the fact that he had a highly gifted IQ in Math!

Another client of mine who was placed in the severely handicapped class due to the fact that he could not test well and received low IQ scores on all psychoeducational assessments. For his entire school career, he was given pre-kinder and kinder curriculum and he had to endure these types of assignments, day after day. He was non-verbal and had extreme sensory integration disorder which caused him to have maladaptive behaviors. The topography of these behaviors could manifest as self-injurious behaviors and self-stimulatory behaviors such as hand flapping and jumping uncontrollably.

When he was in high school, he was introduced to facilitated communication by a private speech and language pathologist and we discovered he could express himself in writing at a much higher level than anyone could ever imagine. This is one of the essays he composed which talked about his experience as a person with the diagnosis of autism:

“i am a young man with autism who does not use speech to communicate. I am able to communicate best when i am typing. my speech does not match my real intelligence. i am very distracted by meaningless things. i can’t control my body or emotions. this makes me look retarded. understanding things and not being able to talk is very frustrating my thinking is so much more than some think. movement is like moving the mountain with a spoon i am trying so hard to control all that is happening and you see how it can’t happen. My movements come from cues and rote moving.  When I am in an environment, I am always looking for order.  I need things to be a certain way I am not wanting things to be chaos I want order.  My body just does this out of need. It is also about the relationship you have with the other person.  Each of us are trying to be more when we are together.  The relationship is to expect each individual to have a want to be together and know the real me.  Each of us want to be accepted.  We want people to know we are listening and want to be included but our bodies don’t cooperate. Please think about learning to know more about movement and communication.  They work together and my ability to be the person I am is dependent on you thinking this is possible.”

Imagine our shock and dismay after learning that this young man had to endure an entire school career being treated as though he was intellectually disabled when in truth, he had intelligence far above what he could verbally express because he had no other way to communicate what was locked inside his mind. This is such a powerful example of how egregious it is for anyone to place a limitation on a student’s potential or true abilities. Think how much we could learn about autism from this young man, if only we had eyes to see and ears to hear.

On a personal note, my own daughter, Chanel, was also one of these students. Throughout my daughter’s educational career, the IEP team argued with me to remove her from the diploma track and place her in life skills. I had psych after psych tell me she wasn’t capable of learning general education curriculum. I encountered even more resistance in comparison to parents of today because this was in the mid 1990s when inclusion was something that was just beginning to emerge. Essentially, I was a pioneer in the battle to bring forth inclusion and dismantle the precedent that special education students don’t deserve to remain on the diploma track or receive the same education as their typical developing peers. Coupled with my own personal story about my daughter and the many clients I have served over the past 25 years, this is a topic that I am very passionate about.

After the reauthorization of IDEA in 2004, things did improve, however, I still encountered the same argument at every annual IEP meeting, year after year. In the end, Chanel was another success story, graduating with a high school diploma, with HONORS. How much more discrimination and segregation must kids with disabilities have to endure to change the mindset of school district officials?

There are scores of students who are misplaced in a life skills class that in reality, could have graduated with a diploma. Of all the violations and injustices that we see in the special education system, this is the one that angers me the most. A student who has been unlawfully denied a diploma and graduates with a credential of completion, is a student that has been denied an education, which means the school district failed to endow that student with the right to receive the sole purpose of IDEA.

In the law, Congress states that school districts have the obligation of ensuring educational results for children with disabilities, equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency.

  • 300.43(a) Transition services means a coordinated set of activities for a child with a disability that-
  • Is designed to be within a results-oriented process, that is focused on improving the academic and functional achievement of the child with a disability to facilitate the child’s movement from school to post-school activities, including postsecondary education, vocational education, integrated employment, (including supported employment), continuing and adult education, adult services, independent living, and community participation.

Neurodiverse students deserve the same opportunities as any neurotypical student. They are not less than just because they have a disability. The fact that they test poorly, have maladaptive behaviors, or are non-verbal, does not give the district license to place them in a life skills class. It is a violation of our basic civil rights to attempt to pigeonhole a student into a one-size-fits all box of placement and services just because their standardized test scores rate them in the deficit range. Most students who need the highest level of frequency and duration of services receive the least amount of services because the district uses the denial tactic stating, “Their ability level is commensurate with their IQ.” Meaning that because they are intellectually disabled, they cannot learn and will not show progress and therefore, are not qualified to receive services. The district will commonly use this discriminatory statement to decrease or discontinue services altogether. There is nowhere in IDEA that gives the district license to make this determination regarding goals, services, or placement.

In fact, the law tells us just the opposite. The IDEA requires that educators have high performance and achievement expectations of students receiving special education. By providing students with disabilities greater access to the general education curriculum with an emphasis on meaningful progress, and by requiring educators to plan for the transition to adulthood, the IDEA intends that students with disabilities leave school prepared for post-secondary education, self-sufficiency, and employment. Yet, students with disabilities are often placed in severely handicapped classes where they are denied these rights under the law. These students leave high school unprepared to move on to secondary education, without the skills necessary to gain competitive employment, and ill-equipped to live independently.

It is common to fear what the future holds for our child. We are often haunted by questions like:

“Will my child ever talk?”
“Will my child be able to live independently after I’m gone?”
“Will my child learn to have appropriate social behaviors and learn how to create friendships?”
“Will my child be able to graduate high school and get a job?”

Unless we hold high expectations and fight the urge to place a cap on our child’s potential, most likely, the dreams we hold for our child will not be realized. If you don’t believe in your child’s highest potential, no one will. It isn’t easy to fight for your child to have the opportunity to reach their potential when you hear the IEP team reciting all the things your child cannot do and emphasize their subjective opinion that your child isn’t capable of accessing the general education curriculum. Remember, the law is your greatest ally. Learn your rights and use them!

If you continue to advocate diligently and let go of the fear of what the future holds, it is possible to see your child’s world expand in ways you never dreamed possible. Remember, your child’s potential should not be limited or have disparaging predictions placed upon them.

The law requires educators to have high performance and achievement expectations for every child in special education. School districts must provide your child even greater access to the general education curriculum with an emphasis on meaningful progress, and by requiring educators to plan for the transition to adulthood, the IDEA intends that students with disabilities leave school prepared for post-secondary education, independent living, and gainful employment.

Cheering you on always!

Valerie Aprahamian

If you haven’t joined our Private Special Education Parent Empowerment Facebook Group yet, you should check it out here.

Here’s what parents are saying about the group:

“Please keep blowing the whistle, Valerie! So many children are being deprived of an education because of all the corruption and lies being told to parents. We pay our taxes like everyone else, which can be interpreted as our children have the same rights as any other child.” -Maria

“Many Kansas parents call on Keys for Networking for help–well Advocates 4 Angels is one of my resources, I read everything from this group that crosses my desk.” -Jane

Valerie Aprahamian is a special education advocate, IEP strategist, and speaker. She speaks on behalf of parents to protect the rights of neurodiverse children to receive the supports they need in public school.

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