Special ed students seek to graduate with class

August 18, 1994|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,Sun Staff Writer

Bruce Watt learned enough in Carroll County schools to read aloud his earnest request to the school board yesterday.

"I want to graduate with my friends," said Mr. Watt, 19, who is a student at South Carroll High School. He can walk across the stage if he wants to and pick up his diploma next June.

But if he does, he'll give up academic and "life-skills" services he normally would be entitled to until age 21 as a special education student.

"I want to learn to live on my own," said Megan Roland, 17, a Westminster High School student who also spoke to the board urging a change in the either-or policy for special education. She would like to graduate in June 1996, but still come back for life-skills classes that would teach her to manage her finances, get a job and keep it.

Mr. Watt will be ready to graduate in June with his friends, the same ones who play with him in the band and go to school games.

If he waits until he is 21, he said, "I won't know any of those kids," he said.

Five teens from around the county who met through 4-H are leading the effort to get the rule changed, having started this year with letters to the school board.

The teens and their parents met last month and decided to attend yesterday's meeting to urge the school board to allow special education students to graduate as soon as they finish four years of high school, and continue to receive extra help until age 21.

If Carroll schools work out such a plan, it could set an example for other counties.

State and federal regulations say a school system is responsible for serving special education students until they graduate or turn 21, whichever comes first.

Students can earn a diploma if they meet requirements, such as passing the Maryland Functional Tests for reading, writing, math and citizenship. Some special education students can pass these tests.

Students who can't pass the tests may get a certificate for completing at least four years of high school.

David Peak, 18, said he wants to graduate in 1995 because he has passed the functional tests and will have completed four years with his classmates at South Carroll High School, the class of 1995.

"That's what it says on my class ring -- 1995 -- and I'd like that to be when I graduate," Mr. Peak said. "If I don't, I probably won't be the same for the rest of my life."

Peter B. McDowell, director of secondary education, said high school principals discussed the issue this month and will talk about it again next month.

Harry Fogle, supervisor of special education, was hopeful that the schools could work out something for the teens. He said these students are exercising a "life skill" that the schools are trying to teach: self-advocacy.

"If they can stand up for what they believe, it's more likely they'll get it," he said. "I think that will have a significant impact. I think people pay attention when anyone advocates for themselves. If someone else advocates for them, they don't have the same emotion, the same vigor."

He said he is talking with agencies that help developmentally disabled adults once they leave the schools. They include public agencies such as the state Developmental Disabilities Administration and private ones such as Change Inc. and the Carroll County Association for Retarded Citizens.

The drawback, he said, is that those agencies may not have enough money to provide the services.

He said school officials also are unsure whether state or federal regulations could prevent them from offering post-graduation services. He said the codes might have to be rewritten.

A call to a few nearby counties produced no school systems that provide services to special education students who graduate before they turn 21, Dr. Fogle said.

"They said, 'We're waiting for Carroll County to change, so we can decide what to do.' We're pretty progressive here," Dr. Fogle said.

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