Monday, May 25, 2009

Pennsylvania special ed students finding more success after high school

From the Tribune-Review in Pittsburgh, Pa.:

Kayla Constantine and Ashley Long (pictured) are looking forward to college.

"I'm excited about getting out there and being on my own," Long said.

"I like to learn," Constantine said. "I want to take up French, culinary arts, history."

The Penn-Trafford High School seniors, both 18, will graduate in June and start at Westmoreland County Community College in the fall.

But they have worked harder than most to get to this point.

Now poised and articulate young women, Constantine and Long have struggled with learning disabilities since they were in elementary school.

"It affects you as much as being in a wheelchair, but you can't see it," said Long, one of thousands of students across the nation who have made life-altering progress with the help of special education classes increasingly focused on helping students transition to their adult lives.

This trend seems to be having a positive impact, according to a long-term Department of Education study that will be completed this year. The study has found that within a year after they graduate, more than one in four special education students attend some form of post-secondary education, up from about one in eight 20 years ago.

Special education, which supports more than one in 10 public school students with a wide range of disabilities, can include modified tests, tutoring or alternative classes. But today it also helps students with disabilities' set goals beyond the protective confines of their classrooms.

"I always challenge people to say, 'Why can't they do that?'" said Jane Falls, the project coordinator for the National Post-School Outcomes Center, at the University of Oregon.

Falls, whose research focuses on special education students, said that while transition planning is required by the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, states interpret the law differently. Some, she said, do better than others, and often the process does not begin soon enough.

Pennsylvania law requires transition planning to begin at age 14. Falls said that is preferable to 16, the age at which federal law says it should begin.

"Pennsylvania has really committed itself to making that transition smoother," Falls said.

Transition planning is not just for college-bound students.

Alex Novak, a sophomore at Franklin Regional Senior High School, has Down syndrome, but he hopes to one day have a job and his own apartment on Pittsburgh's South Side.

"We're thinking about what kind of jobs he might be interested in," said his mother, Lori.

Through the school, Novak, 17, is enrolled in a job exploration program. He has worked at the Westmoreland County Food Bank, which he said he enjoyed, and a local thrift shop, which he admitted was "boring." Next year, he plans to work at a pet boarding facility in Murrysville.

"I'm glad they started this," Lori Novak said. "When he was born and he had Down syndrome, it was hard to think of him as an adult. But now, we're ready."

For students like Novak, one of the hardest parts of becoming an adult is losing the system that supported them throughout their time in school, said Michael Stoehr, a special education consultant with the state Department of Education.

"Oftentimes, students will have a paraprofessional or an aide helping them at school," Stoehr explained. "They don't have that in the workplace or at college."

High schools can help families learn about social services for disabled adults, Stoerh said, and many colleges provide note-taking services, tutoring and extra time on tests. But students with disabilities must learn to seek out and ask for help.

"One of the key things is that the student has an understanding of their disability," he said. "If a student does have a strong understanding of what they need to be successful, that is really key."

For Constantine and Long, learning to talk about their disabilities was important.

"I rebelled against it when I was younger," Constantine said. "I hated the extra help."

At first, Constantine said, she didn't understand her disability and was loath to discuss it. But now, she can explain to others why she struggles in math.

"You have to speak up for yourself," said Long, who initially was embarrassed by her difficulty with reading and math. This year, she was comfortable enough to present a research paper on learning disabilities to her classmates.

"You might know the information, but you just learn differently," Long explained.

Also key was knowing what to expect at college. For that, the girls participated in the Early College Experience at the University of Pittsburgh's Greensburg campus.

"A lot of times, kids with learning and emotional disabilities are cognitively able to do the work, but when they get to college they hit a brick wall," said Melissa Marks, the education professor who launched the program in fall 2007. "They didn't have the support they were used to, they didn't have the time management skills."

Last fall, special education students from Penn-Trafford, Hempfield and Greensburg Salem were enrolled as Pitt students in a freshman seminar, a one-credit course. Each was matched with two mentors, upperclassmen who helped them navigate the campus, eased them into college social life and advised them on study skills.

"Organization is a big thing," said James Swonick, one of the mentors. "Some of us got folders and assignment books for them, showed them how to plan days. I think they realized what it takes to succeed at the college level."

"I remember the first day I got there, my two mentors were like, 'You've got to have a planner,' " Long said. "I'd never thought of that before."

While they said the support of special education teachers has been invaluable, the Early College Experience helped Long and Constantine prepare for the next level.

"They know what they need," said Penn-Trafford transition coordinator Patti Venturella. "They're ready."