Don McFolin is the parent of a McGavock High School senior with Asperger’s syndrome. McFolin is a fierce advocate for his son, and for the young man’s right to graduate with a regular diploma.
McFolin is proud of his son’s accomplishments, and will readily note that the boy is an Eagle Scout, a member of the National Society of High School Scholars, part of Who’s Who Among American High School Students, and was a participant in the People to People Student Ambassador Program.
It is the young man’s dream to attend college and then pursue a master’s degree in history, so that he can someday teach in a university history department.
“He’s a walking set of Encyclopedia Britannica,” McFolin said.
But as proud as McFolin is, he is concerned that his son won’t be able to graduate with a regular Tennessee diploma.
That’s because his son has a mathematics processing disorder, and a graduation requirement in Tennessee is passing the Algebra Gateway Test. Even if McFolin’s son completes every other requirement, he only will earn a diploma that serves as a certificate of attendance, which most accredited colleges will not accept.
As hard as McFolin’s son has worked, and as much as he has accomplished, McFolin says the boy cannot achieve his dreams without a regular diploma.
“All the work up to this time [would be] for nothing,” McFolin said. “It hurts deep to see your son try and try and try.”
Challenges affect many families
In this struggle, the McFolin family is not alone. Nashville-area advocates say the issue is a significant one statewide for many families of children with disabilities, particularly in cases of kids whose special needs should not be severe enough to prevent them from pursuing careers and post-high school degrees.
Monica Causey, a project director for disability advocacy organization Tennessee Voices for Children, said she sees evidence of the problem not just in Tennessee but across the country.
“Most of the school systems are really struggling with similar issues,” Causey said.
For “low-functioning” children with disabilities, Causey said, the situation is less complex, as the focus for educators and families can remain focused on life skills and vocational training. But most children have less obvious special needs, Causey said, and these can be easy for schools to miss or ignore.
Students with special needs have Individual Education Plans (IEP’s) created to identify student needs and identify necessary aids to education. In Tennessee, students as young as 14 have the right to have vocational needs outlined in their IEP’s, Causey said. This can include tutoring and other academic preparation for graduation requirements, if the student’s vocational goals include a regular high school diploma.
But starting in middle school grades in many Tennessee public school systems, Causey said, subtler disabilities can be missed. Many teachers have training and experience for working with a wide variety of students, Causey said, but some may not notice their students have special needs — and they may not even be aware that their students have IEP’s specifying additional help.
“When you have a child who has a learning disability, you don’t see it. It’s invisible,” Causey said. “They’ll see this child in front of them and make snap judgments.”
Cynthia Leatherwood, senior education advocate for the Disability Law & Advocacy Center of Tennessee, says that graduation worries trouble many Tennessee families of children with special needs. Her own 13-year-old son is highly intelligent, she says, but has cerebral palsy. Her family is already working with her son and his teachers to prepare to meet graduation requirements.
Only a small percentage of Tennessee’s students with disabilities have diagnoses indicating troubles with cognition, Leatherwood said. The rest should be able to gain regular diplomas, if they are properly accommodated. The consequences of failing to recognize or accommodate disabilities when meeting graduation requirements can trouble students for the rest of their lives.
“If they don’t have a regular diploma, they can’t go to technical college. They can’t go to cosmetology school. You’re basically dooming the child,” Leatherwood said. “We’re punishing kids for the shortcomings of our educational system, and they’re being punished for life.”
The state of Tennessee is about to change its graduation requirements. Starting next year, students won’t be required to pass Gateway tests in order to graduate with regular diplomas. Instead, they’ll take end-of-course tests throughout high school in math, English, social studies and science subject areas.
Joseph Fischer, the Tennessee Department of Education’s assistant commissioner for special education, told The City Paper that he believes the new end-of-course exams will provide more flexibility in student demonstration of course knowledge. Some students will be able to take alternative performance-based assessments, if IEP teams deem that the best option for individual kids.
“We’ve found that many students have been able to be successful with the different types of tests,” Fischer said. “[The new end-of-course tests] will give the students with disabilities more flexibility in proving that they meet the competencies.”
Students also have access to free tutoring for Gateway tests, regardless of family income level, if IEP plans specify that is what individual students need, Fisher said. If a student with a disability fails a Gateway test, Fischer said, that student may continue to receive tutoring and academic services until the test is passed.
Students are eligible to retake Gateway tests until the age of 22. Once all Gateway tests are passed, students can receive their diplomas.
Special education diplomas rising
At Metro Nashville Public Schools, the percentage of special education students who receive regular diplomas is on the rise, according to Linda DePriest, the district’s new executive director for special education.
Still, that percentage lags behind like percentages for similar districts, and far below the graduation rate for Metro students as a whole.
In 2006, 47 percent of Metro students with disabilities graduated with regular diplomas, according to figures cited by DePriest from Tennessee Report Card data. That percentage climbed to 54.4 percent in 2007, and preliminary figures indicate that it may rise to 55.7 percent for the 2007-2008 school year. The most recently recorded graduation rate for MNPS as a whole was 70 percent, according to Report Card data.
“While we know that’s up, we are certainly not satisfied with that number,” DePriest said.
The district is working to improve its special education graduation rate through professional development for all teachers, an emphasis on disaggregating data to determine which students need help, improved inclusion of students with disabilities in general content classrooms, and an emphasis on good teaching and preventative measures for all students, DePriest said.
Ramped-up teacher recruiting efforts — including the implementation of two programs brought to Nashville by Mayor Karl Dean, the New Teacher Project and Teach for America — also will help, DePriest said.
DePriest said that she, like Fischer, believes that the new end-of-course exams will allow greater flexibility for students in demonstrating knowledge. But some special education advocates disagree, and argue that the diploma situation for special education students may go from bad to worse in the next few years.
According to Causey, the new requirements will mean that it is more important than ever before that children be included in general education classrooms, with accommodations, as early and as much as possible. She encourages parents of children with disabilities to work actively, starting when children reach middle school grades, to get to know their school principals and to familiarize themselves with graduation requirements.
McFolin advocates for son
Meanwhile, parent McFolin has actively advocated on behalf of his son. He has met with his son’s teachers and principal, and contacted central office staff. He reaches out to the local media, and has connected with advocacy organizations. Most recently, he has found a supporter in state lawmaker Rep. Ben West (D-Hermitage) who represents McFolin’s district.
West said he’s still looking into the matter. But he is concerned that McFolin has not been able to secure mathematics tutoring for his son, and believes the situation indicates a need for between communication between McFolin and Metro schools.
“When it comes to the kids, somebody better have some answers. If it takes legislation, count me in,” West said. “We as a government want to encourage parents and students to come forward for tutoring.”
McFolin said he’d file a lawsuit if he continues to feel that his son is not being adequately prepared for and accommodated in meeting graduation requirements. A similar lawsuit was filed in Memphis several years ago. Though that case was dismissed, it reached a relatively high profile, eventually being written about in national publication The Nation.
The goal for McFolin isn’t simply to get attention, he says. He just wants to see his son be able to pursue his goals.
“I’m not doing this for a circus,” he said. “This is not right. This is leaving a child behind. This is denying a child his education. … He should not be punished for this disability.”