Board of Regents Votes to Localize Control of Diplomas for Special Education Students

Bonnie Buckley and her daughter Caroline Buckley made T-shirts to attend the June Regents meeting in Albany a week before Caroline took the ELA Regents exam she would need to graduate with the Superintendent’s Review if it passes. Photo by Maggie Cai.

By Maggie Cai

The results of a vote on an amendment to the Education Commissioner’s regulations on diploma requirements that the Board of Regents held yesterday, will determine whether school superintendents can allow special education students to graduate.

The amendment was designed for special education students who could not demonstrate their proficiency on the state exams even with the appropriate accommodations. Until now, students were required to pass all the required regents or use one of the three safety net options available which would still require them to take more than the two core ELA and mathematics exams.

If the amendment passes, special education students will only need to pass two of the five required regents exams. They will need to earn a minimum score of 55 on the ELA and mathematics Regents exams and a passing grade in their regents courses to be eligible. School principals and superintendents would then review, document and provide a written certification that the student has met the graduation standards for a local high school diploma.

“Board of Regents actions that increase local control and provide alternative pathways for all students are actions that superintendent’s support,” Charles T. Russo, the superintendent of schools in the East Moriches Union Free School District, said.

Students in New York State have to pass five of the required Regents exams with a score of 65 or more to graduate with a Regents diploma, but current special-education students can receive local diplomas from their school districts through various options. Only students who have an Individualized Education Program (IEP), a legal document that states the student’s learning needs and services that should be provided, are eligible. As of 2015, there were 47,789 students in Long Island with IEPs.

There are currently 3 safety net options available to students with disabilities to earn local diplomas in place. This proposed amendment would be the fourth option.

The Superintendent’s review became effective on June 20, 2016 as an emergency measure, allowing as many as 2,200 students to graduate in June 2016, but needs to be formally adopted as a permanent rule. It will determine the fate of the special education students who are expecting to graduate next June under the guidelines of this new amendment and others in the coming years.

The emergency measure made the amendment effective for the students who graduated in June 2016, but would still require a 30-day period for public commentary and this official vote to determine its recognition as a permanent rule.

“The students who graduated under the regulations, they have their diplomas so they are good, but for a student who is thinking that now in 2017, that they’re set because they can just graduate under the superintendent’s review, that may change and could change,” Christine Zirkelbach, the founder of NY Stop Grad HST, a group that advocates for special education graduation reform, said.

Twelfth grade special education student Caroline Buckley is one of these students. Buckley depends on the amendment to graduate next June. “She doesn’t have either of the sciences-the earth science or the living environment- and those are what are going to catch us basically without this amendment,” her mother, Bonnie Buckley, said.

Bonnie is one of the parents who have been vocal about her concerns regarding the graduation requirements for special education students. Zirkelbach says that she thinks the pressure from parents of students who are capable and ready to graduate pushed the board to act.

Bonnie’s Facebook group, Multiple Pathways to a Diploma for All, lists many members of Long Island and beyond who think that the amendment is a step forward, but work still has to be done.

“There’s always going to be some negative fallout if you’re trying to micromanage graduation requirements for students who are thousands of miles away from you,” Zirkelbach said. She adds that situations vary. “A student who has dyslexia who is bad at written exams, may have the cognitive and social emotional skills to go out tomorrow and get a job, whereas an academically skilled child who is on the autism spectrum may actually need more time in a structured environment before they’re ready to move on to the next stage.”

NYS Senator Todd Kaminsky agrees that the new regulations are promising, but says that students continue to be subjected to and evaluated under a one size fits all system where the inability to pass Regents exams results in the denial of a high school diploma.

The special education students who are aiming to earn a local diploma range from ages 19 to 22 at the time of their graduation compared to general education students earning Regents diplomas who range from ages 16 to 18, Danielle Brooks said. Brooks is a special education parent and founder of Special Kids Advocates Agency. “Before this, I thought I wasn’t going to be able to graduate at all until I was 21 and I got upset about it,” Caroline Buckley said.

In 2015, 1,400 special education students on Long Island of the more than 15,800 special education students statewide completed four years of high school without receiving diplomas. If the amendment is adopted permanently, it will be effective on September 28, 2016, and will allow them to apply for a high school diploma.