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Lord acknowledged that he struggled himself to get answers out of Kate about what she wanted for her future; he said he needed the help of professionals to crack the puzzle.

Kate had loved being in the ensemble in musicals such as “Grease” and “West Side Story” at school. Lord wondered if Kate’s love of movies and theater meant she might find behind-the-scenes jobs. But he couldn’t figure out a way to translate those interests into employment in Brunswick.

Related: Low academic expectations and poor support for special education students are ‘hurting their future’

Looking back, he was also concerned that educators didn’t push Kate as hard as they could have academically, putting her at a further disadvantage as she searches for a career. Kate herself says that her classes were easy and that she “almost never had homework.”

But Lord doesn’t blame teachers. He blames the system.

“Everybody meant well,” he said. “But there’s only so much they can do, they can offer her. She needed extra attention everywhere.”

Many districts rely on formal assessments to help schools create viable plans for students. In Washington, D.C., a district official said that public schools give some students a questionnaire that covers items such as, “Do you prefer to work alone or with others?” and “Is it more important to you to earn a lot of money or to help others?” School officials are also supposed to discuss goals and the steps necessary to reach them with students and their parents.

But advocates and lawyers interviewed said Kate’s experience is common. Many said the vast majority of goals and measures they have seen are vague or even nonsensical and fail to live up to their legal requirements. Plans often include too few goals, or superficial ones.

If a student likes football, for example, educators may note that he wants to join the NFL. “Everybody doing this work has seen this [in a] transition plan,” said Maria Blaeuer, staff attorney for the D.C.-based Advocates for Justice and Education. “That’s not a transition plan. That’s just filling in blank lines.”

Peter O’Halloran checks supplies at his job. O’Halloran works full-time at a nonprofit in Philadelphia. Credit: Jackie Mader/The Hechinger Report.

College-bound students might be instructed to research colleges and fill out college applications — but the plans often don’t include training in other essential skills for college, such as how to study. Frequently, transition plans demonstrate low expectations. Parents and advocates say many special education students are steered toward what one parent referred to as the “five Fs”: food, folding, flowers, filing and filth, referring to cleaning and janitorial services.

Bob Cunningham, an expert in learning and attention issues for the nonprofit Understood.org, said part of the problem is that in many schools, nobody “owns” the transition process. “I think because much of what happens related to kids with learning and attention issues is immediate, people are focused on the immediate,” he said.

In other words, educators often don’t think about the future until it’s too late.

Related: The vast majority of students with disabilities don’t get a college degree

By Kate’s senior year, her IEP reflected transition goals driven largely by her parents. They wanted her to take an online college course and look for work in Brunswick in a “paid position that utilizes her theater/drama interest and skills,” according to a draft of the IEP.

Parents and advocates say many special education students are steered toward what one parent referred to as the “five Fs”: food, folding, flowers, filing and filth, referring to cleaning and janitorial services.

Lord said he believes they were copied and pasted from emails he had sent the school in an effort to make sure they were complying with the law. There wasn’t a thoughtful discussion about whether Kate was on board with those plans and what could be done in high school to help her achieve them.

The plan “just lacked depth,” Lord said. “We didn’t have transition goals we looked at and I thought made sense.”

Barbara Gunn, director of student services at Brunswick School District, joined the district after Kate graduated and was unable to comment on her specific situation. But she said that, for all students, crafting a meaningful transition plan is paramount. “That team has to give good thought to what that student would like to do and is capable of doing,” she said. “You’ve got to do some sort of survey on what their interests are, what they have skills in.” If a student like Kate is unsure of what he or she wants to do with their future, a transition goal may focus on doing career exploration to gauge interest in future careers.

The district is also considering beginning the transition planning process in eighth grade, instead of ninth, to make sure enough time is devoted to this process. Gunn said the district provides professional development for teachers that focuses on transition and has recently begun sending a teacher each month to a regional group meeting to discuss transition topics.

Putting the plan into action

Peter O’Halloran and his grandmother when Peter was a toddler. Credit: Jackie Mader/The Hechinger Report.

Federal law says schools are supposed to make sure students follow the steps in their plans, but there is no one watching to make sure they do. “One of the most frustrating things is there’s not services to back up the goals, even if the goals aren’t bad,” Blaeuer said. “It’s very perfunctory.”

Parents often have to take on the burden of making sure their children are getting the support they need to meet their transition goals because schools simply don’t devote enough resources to this part of special education. Some schools have a full-time coordinator focused on transition services. More commonly, special education teachers — who already have a full teaching load — are in charge of overseeing transition plans.

Related: Is teacher preparation failing students with disabilities?

Lord tried to do his own research about what options were available to Kate and reached out to the school with suggestions. The district offered to transfer Kate to a vocational school, but the family decided against it. Kate was thriving socially in school and the vocational school focused on training students in subjects such as mechanics and culinary arts in which Kate had no interest.

Administrators also told the family they could connect with the Department of Behavioral and Developmental Services or apply for Vocational Rehabilitation, a federally funded service that helps people with disabilities access higher education and employment.

In her high school itself, though, there was little on site to help Kate. Her senior-year IEP cited a Service Learning class as a means of introducing her to different employment opportunities. That course is available to both general and special education students and provides students with opportunities to volunteer in the community.

“As we approached transition, it was my absolute goal to have her not fall off the map,” Lord said. “It’s unfortunate, she kind of has … it’s so difficult.”

Achieving the goals

It doesn’t have to be this way. Peter O’Halloran of Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, received special education services during his educational career due to developmental disabilities from complications during his birth. Peter has trouble with reading, paying attention and expressing his thoughts while speaking.

As a child, Peter said he wanted to be a Supreme Court justice. He loved math, social studies and working on a computer. In high school, Peter began to take control of his IEP meetings and frequently gave input about his future goals and aspirations.

Chris Bradley, Peter’s mother, said it took some pushing but the district was generally responsive to Peter’s interests. Sophomore year of high school, Peter took a survey for the district’s vocational tech school that matched him to the food service industry, a field in which he had no interest. He and his mom looked at a federal report with salary information for various jobs, and he realized an office job would provide a higher quality of life than a food industry job.

So Bradley refused to send her son to the food program. Instead she pushed the school to let him try enrolling in some community college courses offered through the school’s dual-enrollment program. He later enrolled in a new vocational tech program in office administration, which gave him the opportunity to also earn credits that could transfer to a community college.

“If I had sat back … Peter would probably be working in food service somewhere,” Bradley said. “I don’t think he would have tried to attend community college.”

Related: STUDENT VOICE: They told me I’d never go to college but I just finished my freshman year — what about all the other students with autism?

The college courses had an unexpected result: Peter realized he actually didn’t want to go to college, and changed his goal. Although Bradley said she would have liked more opportunities to help Peter build a more supportive network in his hometown, the school did take some steps to help Peter work toward his goal of living independently, like taking him to the bank where he learned about setting up accounts and getting loans.

“I wish that people would look at people with disabilities, and [know] they are capable of having jobs and capable of living independently.”

By any standard, Peter has been successful. After he earned his high school diploma, he went straight to a job as an office worker, just as he had planned. He is currently employed full time as an administrative assistant at a nonprofit in downtown Philadelphia. He regularly gives speeches about his experience with special education to local college and university classes that train teachers, counselors and school psychologists as well as at national and statewide education conferences on employment issues, health care and disabilities.

“It all worked out,” said Chris Bradley. “I think it was really successful but it took a lot of work. It was a full-time job for me to advocate for him.”

Kate’s family has now turned to nonprofit organizations and services for help. Kate worked with one local group to develop a career plan and spent three weeks in Minnesota at a life skills program which her parents hoped would introduce her to the idea of being away from home and improve her self-advocacy.

One September morning in the college kitchen where she’s employed, Kate seemed like any other young adult hard at work. She efficiently used a machine to spit out cookie dough and placed the balls on a baking sheet. Her shoulder-length blond hair was held back in a high ponytail — last summer she cut off 12 inches and donated it to Locks of Love — and she chatted with a co-worker about his plans for the day once his shift was done.

She said that although the bakery job was tough at first, now “it’s okay. They’re all really nice.” But she doesn’t want to work there forever.

She’s a big fan of the American Girl dolls — she’d like to work at one of their stores as a personal shopper or, she said, “maybe even set up display cases.” Her dad still thinks there might be a way to tap into her love of theater to find a career or at the very least would like her to get a second job in town. He understands that Kate’s case poses challenges — after all it still befuddles him. But he thinks more ground could have been covered before she graduated.

“I would have loved to have a much better idea of what her interests are,” Lord said. “There’s been a lot of work [for us] since high school.”

Peter, by contrast, is now enjoying the job he began planning for years earlier. He likes talking to clients and working on the computer. He’s making efforts to become more independent, including learning how to take care of a house (he lives at home but is saving money to buy one of his own) and do his own grocery shopping. He said there are stereotypes around people with disabilities.

“People with disabilities are able to work a full-time job,” Peter said. “I wish that people would look at people with disabilities, and [know] they are capable of having jobs and capable of living independently.”

Special Education GlossaryIEP: Every student covered under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act receives an IEP, or an Individual Education Program. This lengthy plan details a student’s current performance levels, goals for the next year, the classes a student will take, and any accommodations or modifications the student will receive in classes.

Transition plan: The transition plan is part of an Individual Education Program and must be developed before a student with a disability turns 16, according to federal law. This plan uses student interests and other information about a student to outline post-high school goals.

Accommodations: Accommodations include strategies like allowing a student to take extra time on a test, type an assignment instead of hand writing it, or sit in an area that helps a student focus. These are described in a student’s IEP.

Modifications: Modifications are changes in assignments and curriculum meant to assist students with disabilities in mastering content, such as providing fewer answer choices on assignments or tests, or providing text at an appropriate reading level for a student.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read the whole series, “Willing, able and forgotten: How high schools fail special ed students,” here. Sign up for our newsletter.

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Sarah Butrymowicz is senior editor for investigations. For her first four years at The Hechinger Report, she was a staff writer, covering k-12 education, traveling the country and developing an affinity...

Jackie Mader is multimedia editor. She has covered preK-12 education and teacher preparation nationwide, with a focus on the rural south. Her work has appeared in the The Denver Post, the Sun Herald and...

Letters to the Editor

2 Letters

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  1. I just got done reading this article on the forgotten part of Special Education. It made me angry due to its one sided view. I am a Special Education teacher at a high school. Parents and students have full rights to input any transitional objectives they want. However, these objectives need to be measurable by law. These transition goals are short term plans. It is not the responsibility of the school to find students employment. The school provided resources for the parents to pursue such as Vocational Rehab. Which is an excellent resource. The system is not broken. It is that this parent did not follow through with making sure his child had plans. Many times parents decide not to pursue resources because they cannot be bothered or do not think their child can do anything. I have seen it first hand. Parents need to stop blaming everyone else for their failures and lack of responsibility.

  2. I think this is an excellent article that illustrates well, how the intention of the transition mandates in IDEA are too often viewed as the least important components of the IEP. A truly thoughtful, team developed transition plan should drive the entire educational program of the student after age 14. Too often transition plans meet the letter of the law but not the intent. As special educators it most certainly is our job to prepare students with disabilities for postsecondary success as adults. That means understanding what occupations are available in one’s geographical area, understanding what is needed to work in those occupations, and identifying clearly what a student needs to accomplish or experience while still in school to be prepared for successful transition. That’s what a quality education is about. The critical importance of formally helping students plan for postsecondary success is now being recognized in general education as well. The importance of understanding what opportunities and requirements are available in the labor market is also being given more consideration in school districts all over the country. Secondary educational programs sorely need educators that have that expertise, beyond just teaching the core academics. As one of the strongest predictors of postsecondary success, employment experience while still in high school should be an integral part of every students transition plan.

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