The Incredibly Light Diploma

An owl flying, grasping a diploma and wearing a graduation cap

There is an insidious goal sometimes lurking behind the diploma of a special needs student. At the time graduating is happening, you are giddy with relief, anticipatory for the future and unbearably relieved that “it’s over”. You picture your child walking the halls of a company, thriving in a position that was meant for them and all is right with the world. The goal I mentioned and its insidious intent? It belongs to the school systems that educate children with special needs and sadly wakes us up from that rosy future in many cases.

A child with educational challenges and limitations oftentimes has difficulty meeting the benchmarks set by the school system. For example, I have a learning disability in math. With other subjects such as English and Composition, I was always learning in honors classes, but with math, I struggled eternally. To this day, I have an extremely difficult time with anything algebra related (read: children bringing home homework which looks alien to me). After writing professionally and *only* holding a high school diploma (although reasonably close to my A.A degree in Writing), math has always eluded me. Such is the case for many a special needs student in today’s world of 504 Plans and IEPs.

Sign that states, “No, I do not plan to do any work today. According to my IEP, I only have to complete work on 3 out of 5 days, with 75% accuracy, in a variety of different settings.”

What happens quite often with IEPs, including my son’s experience, is a slowly integrated system that removes the higher standards set by schools and their graduation requirements. For example, let’s say my son was functioning at a 5th grade educational level in math, which he was. Instead of requiring him to complete Algebra 1 and 2, they will now include an IEP goal for him to complete Basic Math. Theoretically, this is designed to keep him learning at a pace and level that he can accomplish. It assumes that he will thrive as much as he can in the Basic Math program and still progress towards a diploma. This can bring about a false sense of security. You are, on the one hand, happy to see your child learning within their capabilities. On the other hand, you are witnessing the school’s way of keeping your child in an LRE (least restrictive environment) that ensures they will continue to receive funding by keeping your child “mainstreamed” and without a special or alternative placement. Future implications for your child and their ability to pursue higher education will be sorely tested due to this.

When I look at my daughter’s current IEP goals, they are very vague and do not truly address the current educational challenges she faces. As a result, she is floundering and lost in many of her classes. She tries very hard to keep up, but often, children like my daughter fall behind in crowded schools with limited support systems. Yes, many schools are crowded and underfunded, but as this continues year after year without change, I just keep coming to the conclusion that it’s not the high priority it should be. The cost of overcrowding goes far beyond what we think. Hearing, “all schools are overcrowded and there is nothing you can do” gets really old after several decades.

Cartoon drawing of a teacher reading a newspaper article about budget cuts, surrounded by a very large group of children asking many questions. She appears to have an overwhelmed look on her face.

When I have been vocal about this in the past, I get quite a few snarky remarks. “Well, my child went to the same school and they are now working on their Master’s degree in Rocket Science!” I truly am happy for that person and I wish their child much luck and success. The ability for the school to graduate so many children with fine records, amazing scholarships and be seen as a launching pad for success is a lofty goal and for some children, this dream is achieved. For the other children getting lost in the shuffle like mine, the IEP is the perfect out for many IEP teams. Many parents do not realize that the goals on the IEP can shift the entire educational structure of your child’s experience, allowing the school basically have it in writing that they don’t have to give your child the same education as neurotypical children. I’m not alone with the concern over IEP content and implementation.

I’ve been told that I should sign my child up for an outside tutor experience (Have you ever looked at the prices for these things? More than childcare in some cases…) if I want assistance with math. Yes, I’m quite snarky about that topic, but it’s frustrating to hear that. I don’t know what the answer is, but paying $40-100 per hour for a tutor isn’t in my immediate budget. I recently was told there was NO summer program whatsoever for my child and that it stopped around the time she entered high school. Recently, while in session with her psychiatrist, the doctor pulled up the very extensive summer program for her district. Yes, quite the stern, angry letter was written that day I can tell you. Naturally, I haven’t heard back.

Child holding a sign that says, “HELP” and the text, “The long process of IEP Intervention

I can’t tell you how weary I can become lamenting over the IEP process. The thought of dragging out hundreds of pieces of paper and putting together a paper trail that is cohesive and explains the path taken and the path ahead is daunting to say the least. I am in the process of getting ready to do that again. As time is ticking away, over fifteen years after I first asked for help, I see the connection between my child and her ability to achieve a quality diploma slipping away. I do not believe that her teachers and the school administrators are deliberating ignoring her or failing her. I do believe that the resources just aren’t there in typical public schools and that if something doesn’t change, I’m going to wind up with another child graduating with an extremely light diploma that will limit her ability to reach her full potential.

I’d love to hear about your experience in the world of IEPs and other special needs’ educational situations…

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1 thought on “The Incredibly Light Diploma”

  1. Ben’s IEP goals education-wise are very basic. We’re still working on reading and very basic addition. He’s making progress, so that’s good.

    His biggest issue, still not solved? managed? adapted to? is his ADHD and his days like your meme when he just doesn’t want to participate.

    Good luck! I hate IEP time. So much paperwork and so many numbers from so many people. My brain spins every time.


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