Spring finds families considering new graduation options for kids with special needs.

It’s scary to be thinking about the future—and my daughter’s life as an independent young adult. Amanda was born with Down syndrome and health problems that required intensive medical intervention the first two years of her life. We concentrated on helping her gain weight and stay alive.

Every now and then I would ponder the future. Would she walk and talk? Could she someday go to school? Might she ever have her own apartment or live with a friend? But those thoughts of the future brought more questions, angst and sleepless nights. Keeping my nose to the grindstone seemed best.

Eventually, though, I had to confront the fact that my daughter, now 16, had achieved many of the goals I’d imagined for her during those sleepless nights of her babyhood. So now my family is looking at the end of high school and the next phase of Amanda’s life. In hopes that I can help other families whose children have special needs, I’m providing information in this column about the new graduation options for students like my daughter.

Spring is the season of Committee on Special Education meetings for those who have children with special needs. These meetings consist of teachers, administrators, support staff, parents, advocates and sometimes attorneys discussing plans for the next school year.

This year marks a change in graduation options. While for some graduation from high school seems a distant dream, choices made as early as the end of second grade can have a significant impact.

The New York Board of Regents has eliminated the “IEP (Individualized Education Program) diploma,” a certification typically offered to students with disabilities who had completed their individualized education program but did not fulfill the requirements for a regular high school diploma.

The IEP diploma was recognition of an individual student’s achievement of his or her educational goals. It was not a standards-based diploma and was not recognized in this state as equivalent to a high school diploma. It was not accepted by the military as a diploma and could not be used for college matriculation.

The replacements for the IEP diploma are two newly created credentials: the New York State Career Development and Occupational Studies Commencement credential (CDOS) and the Skills and Achievement Commencement credential (Skills Credential).

The CDOS Credential is meant to be a more meaningful substitute for students to achieve than the IEP diploma. It is recognized by the NYS Board of Regents as a certificate that the student has the knowledge and skills necessary for entry-level employment.

The requirements for a CDOS Credential include that the district has provided opportunities to earn a high school diploma and has allowed the student access to the general education curriculum. The student and his education team have developed and annually reviewed a career plan.

The student has demonstrated achievement of the commencement level CDOS learning standards in the areas of career exploration and development; integrated learning; and universal foundation skills and has completed at least 216 hours of career and technical education coursework or 54 hours’ worth of work-based learning experiences.

Finally, the student must have at least one completed employability profile that documents the student’s employability skills and experiences; attainment of each of the commencement level CDOS learning standards; and, as appropriate, attainment of technical knowledge and work-related skills, work experiences, performance on industry-based assessments and other work-related and academic achievements.

Certain students with disabilities will be able to graduate with a regular Regents or local diploma. The state designed compensatory safety net and low-pass options for students with IEPs to assist with graduation diploma goals. If the student has completed the required career and technical education coursework he or she can add the CDOS Credential as a supplement to the diploma, giving more information to future employers. Syracuse University Parent Advocacy Center (www.supac.org) offers free parent training and other services to assist with these changes.

Students who are unable to earn a diploma due to their disability may graduate with the CDOS Credential as their only exiting credential, provided they meet the requirements and have attended school for at least 12 years, excluding kindergarten.

The Skills Credential is the option provided for students who have been designated as New York State Alternatively Assessed (NYSAA). The determination for a student to be NYSSA is made at a CSE meeting. This testing route is only available for students who have severe disabilities. There are multiple criteria that now must be met to be eligible.

The Skills Credential may be awarded any time after a student has attended school for at least 12 years, excluding kindergarten, received a substantially equivalent education elsewhere, or at the end of the school year in which a student attains the age of 21.

The credential must be issued together with a summary of the student’s academic achievement and functional performance. It must include documentation of the student’s achievement against CDOS learning standards, academics and independence as measured by NYSAA, skills, interests and, if appropriate, other accomplishments.

Discontinuation of the IEP diploma has created the need for pointed conversation during CSE meetings for students with special needs at all grade levels. Parents and guardians of students in elementary school need to be aware that choosing NYSSA will limit those students’ graduation possibilities to the Skills and Achievement Commencement Credential.

Parents and guardians of students entering middle and high school on Regents or Local Diploma paths need to be aware of guidelines for the compensatory safety net and low-pass options. Working with special education teachers and school counselors will determine the strategies needed to succeed in graduating with a diploma.

For those students exiting with a CDOS Credential, class choices and work-based learning need to be available and accessed to meet the 216-hour requirement. Students may need help balancing the two and locating job training sites within their district.

Families, students and school staff must have these conversations to ensure they are making informed decisions. Sometimes we do need to lift our heads and look toward the future to bring focus to today.

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