Graduation for Students with IEPs
By: Lauren M. O’Connell Mahler
The end of the school year is quickly approaching. For parents of students with disabilities, the end of another school year often brings thoughts of the path to graduation. You may be asking yourself, “How do I know if/when my child is ready to graduate?”, “Who decides whether my child graduates or stays in school until age 21?,” and “Should my child earn a standard diploma or a non-diploma alternative?”
If your child has an Individualized Education Program (“IEP”), your child’s right to receive a free appropriate public education (“FAPE”) terminates either 1) when he or she reaches age 21 or 2) upon his/her acceptance of a high school diploma or a non-diploma alternative (such as a Certificate of Performance in Delaware). When either of these events occurs, your child will no longer have a right to receive special education instruction, supports, or related services from the public school system. For that reason, acceptance of a diploma or a Certificate of Performance is not a decision to be made without careful consideration.
In Delaware, students with IEPs begin preparing for graduation no later than age 14 or 8th grade, when transition planning is added to their IEP. The transition plan in your child’s IEP is designed to prepare your child for adult life after high school, including post-secondary education, employment, independent living, and community participation. You child’s transition plan should outline his/her post-high school goals, high school classes, educational experiences, activities and services necessary to move your child from high school to adulthood. Like all other aspects of the IEP, the transition plan should be individually tailored to your child and should be based on ongoing, age-appropriate transition assessments, which examine your child’s unique interests and abilities. Your child’s school is responsible for identifying strategies to best prepare your child for his or her post-high school life and link him/her with any appropriate outside adult service agencies (such as the Division of Vocational Rehab or the Division of Developmental Disabilities Services). In Delaware, you should also educate yourself on your child’s Career Pathway and on his/her Student Success Plan, which help guide your child’s path to graduation. More information about transition planning and examples of transition goals can be found on the website for the Delaware Department of Education. It is important to consider whether your child has achieved his/her transition goals, in addition to the curriculum requirements established by the state and his/her other IEP goals, before accepting a diploma or a Certificate of Performance.
Because your child will be exited from special education services once he/she accepts a diploma or Certificate of Performance, graduation is considered a change in placement under the law and the public school system is required to provide notice advising you of its intent to issue a diploma and exit your child from special education services (in Delaware via a Prior Written Notice). As a member of your child’s IEP team, you play an equally important role in the decision of whether or not your child is ready to graduate and should discuss your child’s readiness for graduation with the IEP team. If you disagree with the team’s decision, you can utilize mediation or due process to challenge the team’s decision. You can also seek an independent educational evaluation to examine your child’s progress and whether continued educational programming is warranted. However, if your child has reached the age of majority (18 in Delaware) and you lack legal guardianship of him/her, your child possesses his/her own educational rights by law, including the right to contest the award of a diploma and graduation.
It is also important to understand the differences between accepting a regular high school diploma and accepting an alternative document. In Delaware, the alternative to a high school diploma is a Certificate of Performance. A Certificate of Performance is defined by the Delaware Code as a document that is issued “to a student who has met the requirements of the student’s Individualized Education Program but has not completed the high school graduation course credit requirements established by the State, or the district.” See 14 Del. C. § 152(d). Parents should be aware that a Certificate of Diploma does not carry the same weight that a traditional Delaware high school diploma carries, and that acceptance of a Certificate of Performance may impact your child’s ability to obtain employment after high school or pursue post-secondary education. If your child plans to attend college, community college, or a vocational school, you should contact the schools that he/she is considering and research whether these programs will admit a student who has earned a Certificate of Performance instead of a diploma. Additionally, you should contact employers in your child’s intended future profession in order to determine whether a traditional diploma is required in order to gain employment in that particular field.
For more information, visit www.mcandrewslaw.com or call (302) 380-4975. The information within this article is not, nor is it intended to be, legal advice. You should consult with an attorney for individual advice regarding your own situation.