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‘Special diplomas’ to be phased out

By Staff | Nov 13, 2014

The Florida State Board of Education is expected to vote on a new rule regarding high school graduation requirements for students with disabilities next week as this year’s incoming freshman no longer having the option of earning a special diploma.

“All of our students will be on the standard diploma,” said Lori Brooks, assistant director of School Counseling Services for the School District of Lee County, in a telephone interview. “The diploma change, I feel, may be met with differing views from parents. Some may welcome the opportunity, (while) others may be a little more reluctant.”

According to Cheryl Etters, Florida Department of Education Office of Communications and Public Affairs press secretary, the special diploma option has been in place since 1978.

The proposed rule, which will be voted on by the Florida State Board of Education Tuesday, Nov. 18, stems from legislative action related to Senate Bill 850, which included diploma options for students with disabilities.

According to the bill, students with disabilities will now be able to earn a standard high school diploma, in lieu of a special diploma through course substitutions, industry certifications and portfolios. It also authorizes students with disabilities to earn a diploma through documented successful employment.

The special diploma replcement plan will apply to incoming freshmen and future graduation classes.

The rule includes new requirements that students with disabilities, as well as those with significant cognitive disabilities, need to follow to earn a standard high school diploma that are participating in the Florida Alternate Assessment.

According to the Florida State Board of Education, “the rule provides definitions for access courses, alternate assessment, employment transition plan, and eligible career and technical education courses.”

The access courses are designed to provide students with significant cognitive disabilities access to general curriculum. The alternate assessment measures the performance of the access points. The eligible career and technical education course includes ESE or general education that has content related to the course that it is substituting.

Depending on the Florida State Board of Education’s decision next week, students will be able to choose their diploma pathway, which includes the traditional diploma route, Brooks said.

In addition to the standard diploma requirements, there are some on the job training opportunities and additional classes that students with a disability can take, Brooks said.

She said some parents may elect the pathway that provides some specialized support for ESE electives, while other parents may feel that it is extra requirements.

“It will be interesting to see what parents elect to choose,” she said.

The Lee County School District began moving towards inclusion before the Senate Bill was passed to coincide with its motto “All Means All.”

“Senate Bill 850, really as far as philosophy, didn’t impact us,” she said.

She said the district wanted to move away from separate classrooms. She said all children should be together to provide opportunities for differential studies, which challenges the students.

Brooks said they have been very proactive because the training was put into play before the statue changed.

The district has already begun “inclusion training” for the teachers, which includes opportunities to collaborate, share and develop their own strategies. Brooks said teachers also are having discussions of what has worked for them as far as those strategies.

She said with all students working towards a standard diploma it will create inclusion opportunities for students who were in their own classrooms in their own setting. Although the students are in general education courses, ESE certified teachers offer additional support.

“There are greater opportunities afforded for our students to be in a mainstream environment,” Brooks said.

Evidence-based studies have shown that when students are in a general education setting they are stretched further in building their skills which, in turn, pushes them to further develop their own skills, according to Brooks. She said it is mutually beneficial for students of all ability levels to be in a general setting classroom.