March 30 — 12:12 pm, 2016

Why special-ed students need strong transition planning

Studies show that the single biggest indicator for post-high school success is post-secondary education and training. This is true for disabled and non-disabled children. But when the child is exceptional, the transition from secondary school to adulthood can be overwhelming.

A few years ago, the Law Offices of David J. Berney represented a student who was considered intellectually disabled in a case where the School District of Philadelphia was sued for its failure to provide him with appropriate transition services.

Statistics told us that his disability meant reduced chances for positive outcomes educationally, vocationally, and financially. Studies also indicated that he was at risk of dropping out of high school, and if he did, he would be more likely to receive public assistance.   

Congress has passed a number of laws to make transitioning out of high school successful, including the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). In Pennsylvania, school districts are legally required to develop a transition plan starting in the school year during which a student turns 14. The transition plan must be designed to provide students the skills and experiences necessary for them to be successful after high school.

Our client had a strong parent advocate who lobbied his schools for a comprehensive transition plan. When the school failed to fulfill its obligations under the law, his father filed suit under the IDEA, where he prevailed before an administrative hearing officer. When the District continued to neglect providing appropriate special education services, the student’s parent filed a federal lawsuit. Ultimately, through litigation, the student was able to obtain a comprehensive transition plan in all areas of his life.

The District enrolled him in an educational institution that provides young adults with intellectual disabilities access to a college campus. There he enrolled in a number of educational courses, explored different vocational paths, and participated in social activities. He now is in the process of earning an associate’s degree at a local community college.

But not every disabled student finds success. Despite the promise of the IDEA, the law has frequently failed to prepare many children with disabilities for their post-high school lives.

One reason is that many districts do not take transition programming seriously. Many plans provide meaningless goals and inadequate services. Some transition plans will only require that a student “visit a job fair” or “review a college catalogue.” They offer nothing on home living skills (maintaining an apartment, basic repairs, cooking, cleaning), personal finance skills (budgeting, opening a bank account, using an ATM, applying for and using credit cards, filing taxes), health and wellness skills (first aid, sex education, nutrition, medication, doctor visits, exercise), transportation skills (routine car maintenance, pumping gas, buying insurance, registration, following traffic laws, using a GPS system, taking public transportation), and employment skills (interviewing, filling out job applications, creating a résumé, managing time).

Studies show that coordinating transition services with representatives from post-secondary educational institutions and vocational rehabilitation specialists, such as the Pennsylvania Office of Vocational Rehabilitation, greatly improves the students’ outcomes in work, college, and independent living. But these key players are often missing from the transition-planning process.

Also, school staff frequently have low expectations for children with disabilities, particularly students with cognitive disabilities, even though research demonstrates that higher expectations correlate with greater success.

The odds are stacked against students with disabilities. The school-to-prison pipeline disproportionately affects them, and race also plays a factor where African American students with disabilities comprise almost half of the juvenile prison population.   

Statistics tell us that students with intellectual disabilities have only a 40 percent chance of completing high school. The chances that they will enroll in post-secondary education are around 30 percent, and their odds of attending a four-year college are just 5 percent. They also have only a 30-40 percent chance of obtaining stable gainful employment two to four years out of high school.

These data show precisely why early and ongoing advocacy for a strong transition plan is important to ensure that students with disabilities receive the tools and skills they need to be ready for real life.


David J. Berney and Jennifer Y. Sang are education attorneys in Philadelphia.

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