HATTIESBURG, Miss. — Four weeks into a medical assistant program at Antonelli College, Nikki Mclendon eagerly took her parents to the college’s student appreciation day. The 20-year-old looked forward to discussing her progress and pre-registering for the next term, but instead received devastating news.
School officials told the Mclendons their daughter was ineligible to continue. Without warning, the career technical college that accepted Mclendon a year after she finished high school said the “occupational diploma” she’d received from Forrest County Agricultural High School disqualified her.
“I thought, ‘What? I just went through my first semester of college…. I’m having a blast at it, and you all are ruining my career,’” Mclendon recalled.
Mclendon had no way of knowing the alternate diploma many Mississippi special education students choose if they cannot meet the academic requirements of a regular diploma would be a roadblock to higher education and a career — one the state can ill afford. In Mississippi, some 20 percent of youth ages 16-24 are not in school or the workplace, the highest rate in the U.S., according to U.S. census data.
When Mclendon was admitted to Antonelli, the school had not yet received her transcript, said Steve Bryant, president of Antonelli’s Hattiesburg campus. Mclendon was allowed to start classes and start paying tuition for the $30,000 program, which was refunded when she left. Then the transcript showed that she had not passed all her exit exams, and did not have a regular diploma.
“If we can’t verify when the transcripts arrive that they did in fact receive a normal, regular high school diploma, then the student’s conditional acceptance is revoked,” Bryant said.
What happened to Nikki Mclendon is emblematic of a larger problem in Mississippi, where students are much less likely to graduate with a regular diploma after they are classified with a disability. A review of data by the Clarion-Ledger, of Jackson, Miss., found that the majority of special education students receive an occupational diploma, meant to prepare students for a job, or a certificate of completion, meant to honor special education students’ efforts in high school — even if they fell short of graduation requirements.
As a result, thousands of capable students leave high school with few career and education options in a state with one of the nation’s highest unemployment rates.
In the 2011-2012 school year, only 23 percent of special education students in Mississippi received a regular diploma, according to the Clarion-Ledger review. Federal data shows that the same year, more than 60 percent of all students who exited special education in Mississippi received a certificate or alternate diploma not recognized by most colleges and employers. The rest dropped out, transferred to general education or aged out.
While most states have similar alternate options, few hand out certificates of completion and alternative diplomas as frequently as Mississippi, according to a study by the National Center for Learning Disabilities in 2013.
The state is one of just three where more students with a learning disability — such as a reading or math calculation disorder — graduate with an alternate diploma than a regular diploma, the study found.
Lindsay Jones, director of public policy and advocacy for the National Center for Learning Disabilities, said the occupational track limits these students’ futures.
“Many, and most, certainly can reach grade level and certainly should be graduating with a regular diploma, not to mention going on to college and a career,” Jones said.
The Clarion-Ledger investigation found that special education in the state can fail students even before they approach high school. Students are often steered into an alternate path at 14, when federal law requires all special education students to receive a transition plan. This is often when teachers and parents create post-graduation goals and determine which diploma track the student will enter. Mississippi tends to graduate more students from the alternate track than the national average.
Some students may not even belong in special education or have a minor or highly specific learning disability that can be addressed and should not interfere with their ability to be successful in high school.
Too often, researchers have found, children are inappropriately diagnosed and placed into special education, particularly when they are black and Hispanic. Most states, including Mississippi, diagnose twice as many African-American students as having emotional or intellectual disabilities as white students, according to 2008 federal data mapped by the Equity Alliance, a joint of project by the University of Kansas and Arizona State University.
Nationally, in 2011, only 64 percent of U.S. students with disabilities graduated with a regular diploma and 14 percent were given a certificate or an alternate diploma. An additional 20 percent dropped out, according to recent U.S. Department of Education data.
In Mississippi, the certificate of completion — the bottom tier of three diplomas — is useless, advocates say. “It means they went to school for however many years,” said Sue Cannimore, the education team co-leader for the Jackson-based advocacy group Disability Rights Mississippi. “It doesn’t qualify them for anything.”
For students with more severe disabilities, this option can be appropriate, educators say. A certificate of completion can reward students with severe cognitive or physical disabilities for meeting their individual goals regarding academics or life skills. But for students with less severe disabilities, the certificates and occupational diplomas do little more than exit the student from high school.
In the 12 years since the “occupational track,’’ was developed, Mississippi’s 15 community college have wavered on admitting alternate diploma graduates into academic tracks. Susan Molesworth, director of special education for the Long Beach School District, said the occupational diploma was never meant to be a college prep curriculum.
“Some of the [occupational diploma] kids that were coming into junior colleges weren’t able to do it,” Molesworth said. “They were failing. If [colleges] had seen a lot of success with the students, then they would not have reneged and said ‘we’re not going to accept it.’”
Only seven of the state’s community colleges accept alternate diploma students into academic programs, according to the Mississippi Community College Board. No universities in Mississippi accept the occupational diploma — and neither do two or four-year colleges.
Alternate diploma students face high unemployment rates. In the year after high school graduation, alternate diploma students have nearly triple the unemployment rate of high school graduates, according to the state Department of Education’s 2013 Annual Report.
More than a quarter of special education students who received a certificate or occupational diploma in 2011 were “not engaged” in a job or higher education, the report said. Only 34 percent of special education students were competitively employed, meaning they worked 20 hours a week for at least 90 days in the year since leaving high school — at a job paying at or above minimum wage that also employed nondisabled workers.
Mississippi lawmakers are beginning to recognize the crisis. Gov. Phil Bryant in January called for a commission to identify “barriers or disincentives to the employment of people with disabilities” and called special education students an “untapped resource” for employers. A proposed Mississippi House bill would require state agencies to prioritize finding viable, “competitive” employment for the disabled.
Lawmakers are also recognizing the need to employ special education students, who can range from students with physical disabilities to those with severe cognitive disabilities, and include students with less severe, somewhat “invisible” disabilities, like a hearing impairment or a reading disorder.
Ann Maclaine, executive director of Disability Rights Mississippi, which has spearheaded the legislative initiative, says hiring people with disabilities does the economy a favor. “They’re earning some money, paying taxes…Instead of the state spending millions and millions of dollars to support them in sort of non-productive endeavors, they’re actually out contributing.”
State officials say part of the reason Mississippi gives out a higher proportion of alternative diplomas and certificates than other states is due to tougher graduation requirements. Mississippi is one of eight states requiring four or more exams for graduation, and is one of 23 states requiring students with and without disabilities to pass the exams to earn a regular diploma.
Some states allow special education classes to count towards regular graduation tracks but not Mississippi.
Mclendon qualified for special education at the age of six after she was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, which made it difficult to focus and remember material she had read on her own. But her grandmother and guardian, Joyce Oleson, said it hardly interfered with her class work or her love of school.
In high school, the friendly, soft-spoken teenager took general education classes and passed three of Mississippi’s four high school exit exams, including the writing component of the English exam. But a few weeks before graduation, she learned she had failed the reading portion of the state’s English exam for the fifth time.
That’s when Mclendon was offered a quick out: At graduation she could accept a certificate of completion instead of a regular diploma. Her grandmother refused.
“I was not going to accept a certificate when she had passed every subject that was required by the high school, and was not in any special ed classes,” Oleson said.
The certificates are meant for students with severe intellectual or physical disabilities, said Sue Cannimore.
When Mclendon and her grandmother pushed back, she was offered another option: the occupational diploma.
Under state law, students must take at least four general education classes to leave high school with an occupational diploma. Mostly, though, they are sequestered in classes like “Life Skills Science” and “Employment English” where they learn proper hygiene and how to interview for a job.
Students also have to clock 540 hours of paid work or complete a two-year career or vocational program while in high school. It can set non-college bound students up to live independently and find a job.
Mclendon never took an occupational diploma class, but had completed a two-year vocational program in drafting at her high school. In April 2012, Mclendon was put on the occupational diploma track because she could not pass the English exam.
Mclendon’s grandmother said she had checked the state department of education website and noticed that several colleges — including Antonelli — were listed as accepting the diploma, so she agreed. In May 2012, Mclendon donned a cap and gown with her classmates and picked up her diploma. She was accepted at Antonelli in July 2013 and began classes later that month.
Jerry Morgan, superintendent of the Forrest County Agricultural District, said: “We did our best to try to help her get a general ed diploma.”
He added said that it is “not necessarily” common for students at her high school to receive an occupational diploma for failing one of the exit exams. Many students on the alternate track take advantage of the high schools vocational programs, and leave the school with “skills they can use in life,” Morgan said.
Mclendon, who passed four years worth of high school classes, enrolled in a GED prep class. In December, she took the English II exam for the sixth time to try and earn her regular diploma. The results will come back in February but her grandmother isn’t letting her rest.
“She can either go back and pick up on where she left off on her GED, or she can try to find a job,” said Oleson.
Dwindling options in Rankin County
For many, the state’s alternate diplomas seemed like a good option at first, helping prepare students for careers and what used to be several options for higher education. But those options have dwindled.
The state’s interim special education director, Therrell Myers, said there are no statewide recommendations for how special education students are steered toward degrees. “Those decisions are made at the local level, as is best for the child,” he said.
Still, the state encourages districts to start special education students on a regular diploma track whenever possible, and to use the occupational diploma or certificate only if that doesn’t work, Myers said.
Linda Moore, special education director of the Rankin County School District, said she agrees that alternate routes should be a last resort. But students need to pass four state exams to graduate if a student has a history of failing state exams, “chances are he’s not going to be successful” on the high school tests, she said. Once a student is on the alternate diploma track, it’s exceptionally difficult to switch and make up missed general education classes.
Katie Nelson, a special education teacher at Brandon High School, says she’s seen a shift in the three years she’s been teaching at Brandon. “We’ve tried to put those borderline kids into [the regular diploma track] to give them a shot,” she said.
In December, Hinds Community College which runs five campuses across Mississippi, informed Rankin County Schools that it would no longer accept the occupational diploma for academic classes, and only for certain career and technical programs, such as office systems technology and meat merchandising.
Hinds Community College did not respond to repeated phone calls for comment.
Scott Alsobrooks, vice president for economic and community development at Pearl River Community College in Hattiesburg, which does not accept occupational diplomas, said Pearl River’s reasoning is entirely financial.
The federal government doesn’t view the “occupational diploma’’ as equivalent to the GED or a high school diploma. That means college and universities can’t get funding for occupational diploma students, and the individuals themselves are ineligible for federal student loans and grants.
More career training
As diploma options dwindle, Rankin County plans to continue its emphasis on career training, Linda Moore said.
Already, as a way of helping students transition from high school to employment, Rankin County runs an off-campus daytime coffee shop staffed by students with disabilities. Students are in charge of everything, from stocking sugar to running the cash register. They are not paid, but they clock in and out. A greeter opens the door and invites customers in. A manager makes sure tables and floors are clean every shift.
District staff members make sure this experience translates to post-high school employment. Alumni have found work locally in retail stores and restaurants. One works as a “media specialist” for a local car company; another works construction. The district has shared its model with other districts to help create similar opportunities.
“The whole point of the program is that they don’t go home and collect a check,” Nelson said.
In the classroom, teachers follow state education standards in each content area: Employment English, Job Skills Math, Life Skills Science and Career Preparation.
A ninth grader will learn to “distinguish between odd and even numbers” and “determine, count, and make change in solving problems” in math. High school seniors need to “develop a job placement portfolio” including resumes and letters of recommendation in career preparation.
On a recent morning in an occupational diploma math class at Brandon High School, a half dozen seniors were reviewing vocabulary words about checks, like “memo line” and “void.”
The district’s special education students also take field trips, like a recent one to a Nissan plant.
Still, it can be difficult for students to find jobs — particularly at large corporations that require online applications. “[Our students] don’t meet any of the questions they ask,” said Jane Smith, who heads Rankin’s special education transition efforts. The students must answer ‘no’ when asked if they have a high school diploma, for instance. To find jobs for students, “I go to the people I know,” Smith added.
Moore, who used to work for the state education department, said she is concerned about how well the occupational diploma program is being run in other school districts. In small schools, all grades could be lumped together in one special education class, making it harder for teachers to cover four years of material, and teachers may not be well trained to help with post-high school transitions.
In rural areas, in particular, it’s hard for districts and students to find the jobs that would let them complete the required 540 hours of paid employment, “The integrity of the program has begun to suffer,” Moore said.
‘Responsibility should rest on student’
Not every district is as involved in helping students find employment both in school and after school as Rankin. Long Beach School District, where students with learning disabilities are usually placed on the occupational diploma track, says responsibility should rest on students
“The student must do that on their own because they have to be self advocates on their own,” said Susan Molesworth, the director of Special Education for the Long Beach School District.
A student at Long Beach High School got her job cleaning the lobby, monitoring the soda fountain and occasionally manning the fryer at the Long Beach McDonald’s when her mother asked on her behalf.
She earned a reputation as a good worker; she may soon be trained to run the cash register. But her mother says it’s no thanks to her high school, which she says failed to prepare her 20-year-old daughter for a career or higher education.
In 2013, after Disability Rights Mississippi filed a complaint on behalf of the family, the state found the Long Beach School District failed to comply with federal requirements regarding her education. The district, according to the state, failed to set measurable goals for her based on the classes she was enrolled in.
In her 2010 Individual Education Plan — a document every special education student receives that determines yearly goals and classes — one goal states that she “will be able to demonstrate basic hygiene skills with at least 64% accuracy.’’ A statement that was supposed to describe a post-graduation plan did not mention higher education, and only listed one post-high school plan: After high school, she “will live with her mother for as long as possible.”
The district was also found to have failed “to provide an appropriate transition plan” regarding the student’s post-high school plans. Long Beach had originally encouraged her to try the GED track when she was 18, but her mother refused. She now plans to stay in high school until she is 21 to earn her occupational diploma, using the hours at McDonald’s.
Since receiving the state complaint, Long Beach has hired a part-time “transition coordinator” to work with special education students to prevent a similar situation.
“You don’t want a parent of a senior saying, ‘I don’t know what he’s going to do when he graduates, and you’re going, ‘Well, it’s a little too late now,’” Molesworth said.
That was never the problem with Nikki Mclendon, who knew from a young age that she wanted to work in medicine, possibly as a veterinarian. She has now come to terms with the fact that she most likely will never attend college. But it’s been hard getting over her disappointment. “I was succeeding,’’ she said sadly, “I was happy and succeeding, It’s painful to think about.”
Emily LeCoz contributed to this report.
A student’s name was removed from an earlier version of this article due to legal concerns.