Vocational Transitioning for Special Needs Students

Education has moved away from looking at the student population as a whole and is now looking at this population in subgroups. Through data analysis of student subgroups (i.e. Asian students, female students, low socioeconomic students) educational leaders can identify areas of weakness where curriculum can be reformed to meet the needs of struggling individuals.

One particular subgroup of students where curriculum intervention is a major component of their educational environment is students in need of special education services. These students are often serviced through an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), which is composed of goals and modification designed to meet the specific needs of that particular student. While these efforts are in place to help a student succeed in school, what happens after high school?

When the school doors close forever

In 2009, The Oregonian reported the results of an independent survey identifying what happens to special education students after high school. They found that 65 percent of those surveyed were either working full time, part time, or not at all. This leaves a small percentage who are participating in some form of post-high school educational program.

As a student with special needs prepares to graduate from high school, school districts are mandated through the IEP to offer transitional programs designed to provide college and career readiness guidance. What do these programs look like, and are they enough to prepare this subgroup for the world beyond high school?

Transitional programs

When it comes to college and career readiness, students with special needs are not all that different from regular education students. Some individuals are geared toward the college track while others are best suited for the career track. The difference often is ensuring that special needs students are not left behind; some may need more help to gain the knowledge and skills to lead full and independent lives.

The discussion of college and career readiness begins to take place during a student’s freshman year of high school. In many school districts, transitional programs for special education students are outsourced to local agencies or career counselors who may push for a college path regardless of a student’s disability.

Dr. Marilyn Bartlett of Texas A&M University-Kingsville suggests that college and career readiness for special education students begin well before the eighth grade. If a school or district has a strong career readiness program, all special education students should participate.  Every child should have the opportunity to plant the seeds of any vocation early. As they age, those vocations may evolve to better align to a student’s aptitude. Keep asking the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Beyond academic standards, employers are searching for candidates who display a strong work ethic and moral character. Social and emotional skills should not be ignored when building college and career readiness traits for special needs students.

The College and Career Readiness and Success Center advocates for greater professional development training that will help teachers incorporate these skills in their regular instruction. Educators and parents should include character goals within a child’s IEP. Life skills can be just as important as academic skills when it comes to preparing students for a future career.

Graduation makes all the difference

As educators, the best thing we can do to support college and career readiness in special education students is to help them achieve the goal of high school graduation.

According to a 2011 longitudinal study from the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, close to 50 percent of students with disabilities, who graduated from high school, enrolled in a four-year college and 21 percent enrolled in a two-year college, although completion rates are low. This is in comparison to the students with disabilities who did not graduate from high school. Of that group, only 13 percent enrolled in a two-year college and less than 1 percent enrolled in a four-year college program.

For students with special needs, the school environment can be a daily challenge. This is why maintaining achievable yet challenging academic goals is crucial to the success of these students and why teachers must not discount their education simply because they do not represent the traditional student population.

Dr. Jason Perez is the head principal at Heritage Trails Elementary in Moore, Oklahoma, as well as a faculty member at Concordia University – Portland, where he teaches Master of Education in Curriculum and Instruction courses, and an adjunct faculty member at the University of Central Oklahoma, where he teacher Master of Education Administration courses.

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