It took five years for Dawlton McMillan to finish high school in Holly Springs, Miss.

The former special education student had learning disabilities in reading and writing that required her to take extra courses, outside speech therapy and alternative exit exams in order to complete high school.

Along the way, her mother, Debbey McMillan, battled school officials to get her daughter the instruction and services she felt she needed.

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When Dawlton finally graduated in 2014, she not only fulfilled her mother’s dream but also became somewhat of a rarity in Mississippi: a special education student with a standard high school diploma.

Nationally, 63 percent of students with disabilities graduated high school in 2014, the last year with available data. But only 28 percent did so in Mississippi. Only Nevada fared worse, at 27.6 percent.

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney at the National Disability Rights Network, said graduation rates for special education students in Mississippi and Nevada were embarrassing.

“I would be embarrassed about those numbers,” Hager said. “There should be like bells and whistles and clangs going off that we’re failing this many of our students. I mean this is failure. It should be looked at as a failure.”

Students who don’t graduate are more likely to struggle with unemployment, poverty, incarceration and even homelessness and mental and emotional problems. The stakes are even higher for students in special education, whose disabilities put them at a greater disadvantage in the job market.

Experts say the path to low graduation rates begins in elementary and middle school when students in special education don’t get the instruction and services they need to overcome their disabilities.

“This practice of holding kids to much lower expectations, it has just become pervasive,” said Candace Cortiella, director of the Advocacy Institute, a nonprofit special education research group.

But tougher academic standards implemented in 2010 for all Mississippi public school students also have hurt graduation rates for students with disabilities, since they have to meet the same academic requirements as typically-developing students to receive diplomas.

The higher standards are a double-edged sword, said David R. Johnson, director of the Institute on Community Integration at the University of Minnesota. “When you raise the bar, fewer and fewer people get over the bar,” he said.

That helps explain why 61 percent of special education students in Mississippi receive alternate diplomas – either certificates of completion or occupational diplomas – when they leave high school.

A 2013 study by the National Center for Learning Disabilities found only two other states, Idaho and Nevada, where more than half of special education students receive alternate diplomas.

The certificates indicate a student has finished high school but didn’t meet the requirements for graduation. Occupational diplomas recognize students who’ve had vocational training in trades such as carpentry or welding.

But neither one is preferred, and often not accepted, by postsecondary schools, most employers or the military. That leaves recipients with limited options when they leave high school.

Knowing this, Debbey McMillan wouldn’t let her daughter, who’s now 22, settle for a certificate.

Some students in special education have serious impairments that keep them from meeting standard graduation requirements. But Johnson, who studies graduation requirements for special education students, said the vast majority could meet the same standards as their peers without disabilities, “if they receive the same instructional opportunities, and the individualized support services and accommodations they need to be successful.”

Advocates for people with disabilities say that’s not happening for many students in special education Mississippi. And the numbers suggest they’re right.

Only 13 percent of Mississippi high school students with disabilities were proficient in reading on state assessment tests in 2014. Only 22 percent were proficient in math.

“The data speaks for itself,” said Cortiella. “If only 13 percent are proficient in reading, then doesn’t that say the odds are pretty darn good that they’re not getting appropriate instruction?”

Officials at the Mississippi Department of Education agree the numbers are unacceptable.

“It certainly is not where we would want it to be,” said Gretchen Cagle, state director of special education.

The department has stepped up training and resources for teachers to improve their instruction of students in special education, said Kim Benton, the department’s chief academic officer.

“We’ve really, really intensified those supports for teachers of students with disabilities to ensure that our boys and girls reach higher levels of proficiency both in reading and in math,” Benton said.

Improved reading and math proficiency in 2015 for all Mississippi fourth-graders, including those with disabilities, “indicates that we are on the right path to close the gap for our students,” Benton said.

Fourteen percent of Mississippi fourth-graders with disabilities were proficient in math last year, up from 13 percent in 2013. Their reading proficiency rate went to 9 percent from 7 percent over the same period.

But the share of Mississippi eighth-graders with disabilities who were proficient in reading dropped to 2 percent last year from just 5 percent in 2013. The percentage who were proficient in math likewise fell to just 2 percent in 2015 from 3 percent.

Last year, Mississippi public schools enrolled more than 57,000 students with one or more of 13 types of disabilities that qualify for special education services, according to state reports filed with the federal government.

These students ranged in age from 6 to 21. Nearly 49 percent were black and more than 47 percent were white.

About half had either speech or language impairments or specific learning disabilities such as dyslexia, dysgraphia or problems processing what they hear and see. The rest struggled with issues such as autism, developmental delay, emotional disturbance, vision impairment and deafness.

The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires schools to develop individualized education programs for each student in special education. Those programs set educational goals and spell out the kinds of instruction and services that schools must provide to help the students reach those goals.

Last November, on the 40th anniversary of the IDEA, the U.S. Department of Education sent a “dear colleague” letter to school districts nationwide advising them that individualized education programs for students in special education “must be aligned with the state’s academic content standards for the grade in which the child is enrolled.”

But getting Mississippi schools to make good on that directive and to provide the education and services spelled out in students’ individualized education programs isn’t so simple, advocates said.

“It was a constant battle all the way until Dawlton graduated,” said Debbey McMillan. “Five years of fighting with that school. It was a battle.”

After her son with learning disabilities dropped out of school in the 10th grade following years of academic struggles, McMillan was determined not to let the same thing happen to her daughter.

So when the Holly Springs School District wouldn’t adjust Dawlton McMillan’s individualized education program at her mother’s request, McMillan sought help from Disability Rights Mississippi, an advocacy group.

Anna Taylor, an education advocate for the group, handled Dawlton’s case. She helped broker an agreement with the school district for a new reading program for Dawlton and for additional services, including compensatory summer classes in 2012 and 2013 to provide instruction she should have already received.

And when a dispute arose over the school district’s compliance with the new agreement, lawyers for the advocacy group filed a chancery court complaint that netted even more court-ordered services for Dawlton.

The ordeal played out over several years as both sides couldn’t agree on multiple requests to accommodate Dawlton’s changing educational needs.

“It was like pulling teeth and herding cats,” Taylor said of the standoff. “And after the district was forced to comply, the services were never as good as they should have been.”

Joyce Freeland, the Holly Springs School Board attorney, disputed Taylor’s assessment. She said Disability Rights Mississippi’s handling of this case was “overly aggressive and unreasonable.”

Freeland, who has represented students with disabilities in other school districts, said Holly Springs was one of the state’s better districts in dealing with students in special education.

“Holly Springs, in my exposure, has an excellent track record and commitment to helping disabled students,” she said.

Federal privacy law prohibits state officials from discussing Dawlton’s case. But Cagle, the state director of special education, said each student with disabilities had a different experience based on their unique needs and the school they were dealing with.

“We’re a local-controlled state, and things vary a lot between the different districts,” Cagle said. “I think you would find different challenges in every district that we serve.”

Taylor said Debbey McMillan’s persistence in fighting for Dawlton made all the difference between her graduating with a real diploma and leaving school with a certificate. Most parents are either too intimidated to challenge the school district or don’t know where to turn for help, Taylor said.

“Usually a parent is not as aggressive as Debbey was,” Taylor said. “She felt like the school wasn’t doing what they needed to do. And she was right.”

Dawlton McMillan is now enrolled in general education courses at Northwest Mississippi Community College.

© 2016 McClatchy Washington Bureau
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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