Divided We Learn

High schools push few students with disabilities to consider college

Most students with disabilities can make it to and through college, but are hindered by low expectations.

Under federal law, schools have to help students with disabilities create a transition plan for life after high school. The transition plans include goals for further education, careers and independent living. But many experts, parents and students say schools often set the bar too low.

Christine Bradley knew her son Peter wanted to take some college classes, work in an office and save up to buy his own house after high school. Peter has multiple disabilities that include dyslexia, attention deficit disorder, and mixed-receptive expressive disorder, which makes it difficult at times for him to communicate his thoughts.

When his school suggested he go into a cooking program for jobs in the food industry, she pushed back.

“He’s not really skilled at it and really didn’t have much of an interest,” she says.

Most students with disabilities can graduate from high school, go on to college and earn degrees according to a report by the non-profit Achieve organization and the University of Minnesota’s National Center on Educational Outcomes. Many, however, will be encouraged to go straight into the workforce, where they often take low-paying jobs.

Just over half of students with disabilities will enroll in any post-secondary education programs like community college, a technical school or university, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Education. Only one-third of those students will go on to complete their programs within eight years, according to the report.

Journalists Jackie Mader and Sarah Butrymowicz investigated how schools are carrying out these transition plans for The Hechinger Report.

Sarah says that across the board, most students are being underserved.

“One of the things that we heard over and over again is that the vast majority of students with disabilities can go on to college.”

Instead of the cooking program, Peter took a few classes at a community college, went into an office management program, and is now employed full time as an administrative assistant.

“I sort of wish that that people weren’t going to underestimate us and think you’re never going to read or you’re never going to write,” he says. “But every time you’re just trying to prove people wrong.”

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