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Kenyatta Burn works with her tutor at the Durham Literacy Center on Thursday, Nov. 20, 2017, in Durham, N.C. Credit: AP Photo/Brian Blanco

The next hurdle came while Colson was still in middle school, when Brown realized that he had been placed on what is called the certificate track, which meant he would graduate with a certificate of completion, an alternate diploma that is not recognized by most colleges and employers. That began a four-year-long fight to get him onto the diploma track. “I just wasn’t going to let them put him on the certificate track, where they just give them a piece of paper so they could work at a gas station,” said Brown.

Colson, who is on the autism spectrum, initially had trouble using and comprehending complex words, but thanks to the additional therapy he received, Brown felt he had made great strides. But school administrators ignored that progress, Brown said.

“He was smarter than anyone in the class. The teacher counted on him to help her with the other students,” Brown recalled. “I would just keep going in and telling them, ‘I think my son can be on the diploma track.’ But they put up brick walls.”

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

Around the country, black and Latino students are far more likely to be put on the track toward these alternative diplomas. During the 2014-15 school year, the most recent year of available federal data, more than 37,000 students with special needs graduated with a certificate instead of a diploma. And while black and Latino students made up just 45 percent of students who exited the special education system that year, they made up 57 percent of those who received a certificate. White students, on the other hand, were much more likely to leave high school with a traditional diploma.

31% — The percentage point gap between the number of black special education students who receive a traditional high school diploma in Wisconsin and their white counterparts.

Brown eventually used Tyrone’s insurance for a second evaluation, outside of the school. “The school’s evaluations will tell you that the school is giving the child exactly what they need,” said Brown. The outside evaluation convinced school administrators to retest Colson: This time, they found he was ready for the diploma track.

While district spokesperson Kristina Saccone declined to address the specifics of Colson’s case, citing federal student privacy laws, she said that the district is aware of these achievement gaps and is committed in its new strategy plan to addressing them. Among the plan’s strategic priorities is strengthening instruction for special education students.

“It’s really important to continue to look at the achievement gap; it’s a challenge for us and it’s something that we are working on,” said Saccone. “We just got a report from the American Institutes for Research, highlighting the progress the district has made, but also specifically focusing on the achievement gaps that remain particularly for students of color and special education students.”

Coleman became one of the students to narrow that gap. He eventually graduated with a traditional diploma, and is currently enrolled at the University of the District of Columbia. Brown’s voice fills with pride when she talks about how her son excelled once he was placed on the diploma track. “His transcript looks so beautiful it’s scary. It starts out with him on the certificate track in ninth grade, and then he moves over to the diploma track, and there isn’t a single C or D on that diploma-track work,” she said.

Brown is matter-of-fact when she talks about the sacrifice she had to make to ensure her son beat the odds, however. To help him succeed, she had to quit her own career. “I realize that if I didn’t leave the workforce my son wouldn’t be as far along as he is,” said Brown.

Not all students are as lucky. Kenyatta Burns’ story highlights what happens to the many black students in special education who don’t have a parent in their corner, let alone one who is willing and able to quit their job and devote themselves full time to advocating for their child. As a child, the now 20-year-old North Carolina native was in and out of foster care and often struggled with behavior problems. Eventually, she received a diagnosis of ADHD and bipolar disorder. The diagnoses should have triggered extra supports at school, but Burns said that much-needed help never materialized.

While Burns struggled at a Durham, North Carolina, elementary school, she says she began to catch up academically after she transferred to a middle school in nearby Raleigh. But her success was short-lived. She ended up back at Durham Public Schools in eighth grade. That year, the school didn’t ask her to take any end-of-course exams. Instead, she was put in a room to watch movies while other students took their tests. She was passed up to ninth grade anyway.

“When I got to high school, I crashed. I didn’t know what was going on,” she said. “I was screaming for help with work … I would just sit in the room and let the days go by.”

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

At the end of ninth grade, Burns’ mom gave her a choice: go to school full time or work full time. She picked working at a McDonald’s. Since making that decision, Burns has changed course, and is now pursuing a high school equivalency degree, with tutoring help from the Durham Literacy Center. When she started going to the center two years ago, she said, she didn’t even know how to multiply whole numbers. She added she’s learned a lot — including how inadequately the public schools prepared her.

“Now I thank God, I didn’t let them skip me up. I would have had a high school diploma, [but] would have never known how to … use my commas, put in periods, capitalize words,” she said.

The tutors at the literacy center work with Burns one-on-one and are patient when she doesn’t understand something. “That’s what I wish I would have had in high school,” she said.

“An IEP doesn’t mean that you’re slow, it just means you have a hard time learning things,” she added, referring to an Individualized Education Program, a set of documents, services and supports given to all students in special education.

So far, Burns has passed the language arts portion of the high school equivalency exam and is hoping to go into real estate when she finishes the other sections.

Chip Sudderth, chief communications officer at Durham Public Schools, confirmed in an email that Burns had been a student in the system. Sudderth said that the majority of students receiving special education services are on track to receive a regular diploma and spend the bulk of their time in classrooms with their general education peers. The unique needs of each student are determined by a team of educators, the parents and sometimes the student.

Who is in Special Education?

Students who are diagnosed with one or more of the 13 disabilities covered by the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act qualify for special education. Those disabilities include learning disabilities, autism, emotional disturbance, and hearing impairment. Within each disability, there is variance in severity and how the disability reveals itself in a classroom.

Meanwhile, in Washington, after learning how to make the system work for her son, Daisy Brown started looking for ways to help other children. Brown now sits on two committees, one put together by the District’s Department of Disability Services and another run by the D.C. Medicare program from which Tyrone received outside services and evaluations. Both committees aim to help Washington children navigate the special education system. As part of that work Brown runs workshops for parents on how to advocate for their children.

“It’s not just about helping that child, it’s helping that family be able to help that child. Parents must learn how to get the help that they need,” said Brown. “As a parent, you have to break down the bricks that they put in front of you. It’s not an easy thing to do.”

Related: How one district solved its special education dropout problem

Parents who are aware of their rights can help close the gaps for their kids, Brown said. “The first time, a parent sits down at an IEP meeting and can talk about what these scores mean and what concerns them, their [officials’] mouths drop,” she said. “They see this is not a parent who I can pull the wool over their eyes. I’ve seen so many doors opened for parents.”

Michelle Fine, a professor of psychology at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York, said the problem is much deeper than an information gap. Racism and a lack of cultural competency often pervade meetings between school officials and parents and make it difficult for black and brown families to get what they need for their children, she said.

“Often people blame families for not being more involved, but schools are more likely to listen to white and upper-class parents,” said Fine. “Privileged parents are listened to. When poor parents and parents of color fight for their children, they are seen as aggressive … They are treated as if they don’t know what they are talking about.”

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.

Reporting was contributed by Sarah Butrymowicz and Isaac Carey.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

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Emmanuel Felton is a former staff writer. Prior to joining The Hechinger Report, he covered education, juvenile justice and child services for the New York World. He received a bachelor’s degree from...

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  1. Are you aware of the exclusionary criteria to a specific learning disability diagnosis as provided for in IDEA? These criteria make it easy to systematically exclude children of color. For example, economic disadvantage is an exclusionary criteria so free and reduced lunch can serve as documentation for exclusion. I have attached a document that includes documents which can be used to support exclusion( p. 42). The law systematically excludes some children; it doesn’t happen as an oversight.
    http://www.doe.in.gov/sites/default/files/specialed/8-sld-considerations-document-2011.pdf

  2. I have been doing research regarding the racial disparities within the special education and general education system. I was wondering if African-American or students of color are truly over represented in special education and if general education teachers are ‘diagnosing’ ‘frequently disruptive’ students as having ’emotional or soft disabilities’? I have this question because I believed there was an over representation of African-American or students of color in special education but new studies suggest that there is an under representation of African-American students or students of color in special education. Also in areas that the racial demographics are predominantly African-American or people of color and there would evidently be more African-American students or students of color in special education than white students, I am wondering if the statistics and data representing over representation of African-American students or people of color come from those areas. Thank you and please get back to me.

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