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Advocates say too many Special Ed students are not prepared for life after school

“There’s not enough money and not enough staff.”

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Philadelphia City Councilman Derek Green, who has an 18-year-old son on the autism spectrum, says he has been very satisfied with the programs at the Hill-Freedman World Academy in East Mount Airy.

But interactions with constituents have convinced him that his son, who is in the process of planning for life after school, may be the exception.

“It’s a big challenge when a child is falling off a cliff,” he said. “People have to work hard to pull together information and resources. My sense is that more is needed.”

So last fall, Green introduced a resolution calling for hearings on secondary school transition to higher education or employment for the city’s public school students with disabilities.

The transition process is detailed and complex, with specific requirements and deadlines, and involving several state agencies as well as representatives of the school the student attends.

Council plans to hold hearings in the spring, he said.

The resolution stated that:

• In the 2015-16 school year, 42 percent of Individualized Education Programs (IEP) reviewed were not in compliance with federal requirements for transition services.
• State reports for the 2017-18 school year indicated that state Office of Vocational Rehabilitation (OVR) representatives from the Philadelphia office attended only 43 IEP meetings. (The District enrolls over 14,000 special education students ages 16-21) and made 215 job referrals on behalf of students.
• For the 2016-17 school year, only 51 percent of (District) students who had IEPs when they left high schools were either enrolled in higher education or competitively employed.

A District spokesman declined to respond to questions about the pending hearings or other specific criticisms of District transition programs.

A spokeswoman for the state Department of Labor and Industry, which oversees OVR, issued a statement saying that “while OVR staff participation is not required, when invited they make every effort to attend in person, on the phone or via video.

Steve Pennington Photo: Paul Jablow

“To provide the best supports for students, local OVR managers and Philadelphia School District staff are in discussions to resolve scheduling issues so that OVR counselors can participate in IEP meetings,” the statement said.

Stephen Pennington, executive director of the federally funded Pennsylvania Client Assistance Program, said, “Education and OVR don’t have a clear understanding of the transition (service) each provides.”

“There’s not enough money and not enough staff. There’s no one who sees the bigger picture,” he said. “In Philly, there’s a lack of commitment on the part of the School District at the highest level.”

A District spokesman declined to offer a response to that characterization.

Maura McInerney, legal director of the Education Law Center, said that “families are struggling to navigate the system.

“Too often we find the onus is placed on parents to ask for programs or services when parents and youth have no information about what is available and how to access it.”

“For example,” she said, “an IEP Team may identify a potential career, but no one in the room has sufficient information to identify what the student needs to access that career.”

McInerney described a case in which a young person whose goal was to enter the military was given no information about the requirements, including entrance exams, to do that.

Later, she said, when the youth changed his mind, “the IEP Team pushed him to retain that goal. This is another problem–once a student identifies a career goal it often becomes immutable even if the youth changes his mind.”

McInerney said that in general, the transition planning process lacks tools and activities that would yield more accurate information regarding the strengths, weaknesses, interests and preferences of the student.

Darlene Hemerka, an Equal Justice Works Fellow with the Public Interest Law Center, said that “parents do not know where to begin.”

She has compiled resources and included them on the Law Center’s website. She is also interested in talking to more parents about their experiences with transition services.

While Hemerka recognizes that parents and schools must work together in order for a student to successfully transition from school to work, she emphasizes that other agencies must also be included in the planning process because “while schools have expertise in education, and parents know their child the best, districts do not have expertise in helping students
find employment.”

She notes that the state Work Experience for High School Students with Disabilities Act, Act 26, passed in 2016, holds OVR to more stringent reporting standards and mandates closer cooperation with local school districts and the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

Despite the laws, Hemerka reports that collaboration does not appear to be happening and the education and employment outcomes for students with disabilities remain significantly lower than their non-disabled peers.

McInerney also cites federal legislation, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act of 2014, which requires expanded access to transition services. Under federal regulations, pre-employment transition services must include:

• Job exploration
• Counseling
• Work-based learning experiences
• Workplace readiness training
• Self-advocacy training, perhaps
including peer mentoring.

“It’s an important law because it required state vocational rehabilitation agencies to set aside at least 15 percent of their funding to provide transition services to youth with disabilities,” she said.

Pennington doesn’t disagree but he adds a caveat: “It isn’t about lawyers. It’s about leadership. ”

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