Friday, October 9, 2015         


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Tough going after school

A lack of programs and services limits opportunities for special-needs students to find jobs, continue their education and live on their own

By Mary Vorsino


Many special-needs youth in Hawaii leave high school ill-equipped for the world and are not linked with services that could help them pursue higher education, secure a job or live independently, say advocates, who want more attention paid to what happens after graduation.

Statewide, they say, there is a lack of occupational skills programs at high schools, and some campuses do not do enough to help students make transitions into adulthood -- though such planning is required starting at age 16 under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

"They're not achieving to the level that they need to just go into the world and work. They're not really connected with the agencies or departments that can help them get there," said Phyllis Dekok, who is on the Special Education Advisory Council's transition committee and is a "family success coach," working with special-needs students, on the Big Island.

Parents, too, say schools are not doing enough to transition youth smoothly.

Gareth Kyi is set to age out of school in July, when he turns 21. He has low-functioning autism, which means he has trouble with basic tasks.

To get him ready for life after high school, his mother, Maria Kyi, pleaded with an adult day care program -- with a long waiting list -- to take him a few days a month so he could get used to it. She re-created a classroom setting in her living room to make the school day easier for him. And she has spent hours reading books on autism to learn more about how he learns.

Maria Kyi said she and her husband have done all this with little help from her son's educational team -- teachers, aides and specialists -- at Campbell High School. They also say their demands are not unrealistic.

They want their son to be as independent as possible and to get the most out of his life. "He doesn't need to be a doctor or a lawyer, as long as he can wash his clothes," said Kyi, talking about her son during a support group meeting of parents with children who have disabilities. Gareth's father said, "I'm not shooting for the stars."

He added, "My final goal right now is for him to be safe."

» 57%: Graduation rate of Hawaii special-education students in 2010
» 80%: Graduation rate of all Hawaii public education students in 2010
» 80%: Percentage of Hawaii special-education students from class of 2006 employed, or in post-secondary education or training
» 87.4%: State's goal for post-secondary employment or training for class of 2010 special-education students

Source: State Department of Education

The Kyis are pushing Campbell High to provide more transition assistance, and they also recently filed a due-process claim alleging inadequate special-education services and seeking to keep Gareth in school for one more year. The couple has won in previous due-process claims in which they said Gareth was not given adequate help to maximize his learning.

Post-secondary school outcomes for special-needs youth have long been a concern.

But the discussion of what happens to special-needs students after high school is one of increasing urgency in the economic downturn, as youth with disabilities flounder in a difficult job market, seek help from nonprofits or state programs whose services have been slashed because of budget cuts, or get overwhelmed by crowded classes at college campuses.

Advocates and educators say that the considerable growth in services for students with disabilities seen under the Felix consent decree, which ended five years ago along with federal oversight of special education in Hawaii, made some marked improvements for special-needs students in public high schools.

Still, they say, key components continue to be missing in the system, and more work needs to be done to make sure students get the training and guidance they need in high school to reach their greatest potential in college, in the work force or in the community.

Department of Education officials, meanwhile, agree post-school outcomes for special- education students need to be addressed -- and point out the problem is a national one.

Officials also say part of the difficulty in tackling the issue is the big differences in abilities among special-needs youth, and say a one-size-fits-all approach has not worked.

Many special-education students have mild learning disabilities and could, with the right help, graduate and succeed in college. Others can seek employment with training and assistance. And some will not ever be able to live independently, but could master basic living skills.

The department says it plans to attack the issue on several fronts:

» The DOE wants to create stand-alone occupational skills programs for special-education students statewide by pooling the resources of high schools in districts. Some high schools are already working together to offer more robust occupational skills programs, but the Honolulu district is the only school area in the state with a center for occupational skills classes. The center is on the campus of the School for the Deaf and the Blind.

» Schools are being called on to improve transitional services for special-needs students (though no new funding is expected to pay for more personnel). In particular, the department is pushing schools to work with special-education students to come up with ambitious but realistic post-high school goals, then figure out what they need to do to meet them.

» Though some special-needs students cannot graduate with a diploma, and instead leave school with a certificate of completion, many should be able to pursue one. The department acknowledges it has work to do to improve its graduation rate for students with disabilities. Last school year, 6 in 10 special-needs youth graduated with a diploma. The state's goal is 8 in 10, which is the same as the state's overall graduation rate.

The department is looking to boost graduation rates by offering more interventions for struggling students so that they get help before they fall too far behind. At the same time, the state wants to raise learning benchmarks and graduation requirements for all public school children, which is drawing concerns from advocates for special-needs kids. They say if requirements are increased, more special-needs kids could drop out.

» Department officials say they are not happy with post-secondary school outcomes for youth with disabilities, but statistics on just where special-education students end up are sketchy. Surveys of special-needs students a year after graduating, dropping out or aging out of high school showed about 80 percent were employed or attending a post-secondary program. In the survey a post-secondary program could include anything from college to a GED class.

Ronn Nozoe, department deputy superintendent, said those results do not say much about what schools might be doing right or wrong and that the department is working on better tracking systems of special-needs youth.

But those improvements, like others the department is proposing to boost post-school outcomes for special-education students, are two or more years off and are in some cases dependent on more money that might not come through.

Department officials and advocates agree the state needs to start zeroing in on the issue.

"It's extremely important," Nozoe said. "We have a long way to go."

About 20 percent of Hawaii's special-education population of 19,426 (or about 4,000 students) is 16 and older, and in any one year more than 1,400 leave school after graduating, earning a certificate of completion, aging out (at 20 years old) or dropping out.

It is at 16 that high schools must start including "transition planning" and post-school benchmarks and goals in the Individualized Education Program plans for special-needs youth.

"Unfortunately, there is not a clear understanding of what is meant by 'transition,'" said Ivalee Sinclair, chairwoman of the Special Education Advisory Council, which has increasingly raised concerns about the post-secondary school outcomes of special-education students.

Sinclair said transition teachers at high schools are vital to making sure students have reachable goals and that they are on a path to meet them. Transition teachers are also charged with hooking up students with services and programs in the community.

But not all Hawaii high schools have transition teachers.

Some schools have moved them into different positions because of limited funding. And remaining transition teachers are often overwhelmed by big caseloads.

For David Yap the transition from high school to a community college took lots of preparation and planning -- much of which was his own planning, the 24-year-old said.

"Primarily it was my own desire, my own goal," Yap said. "I did a lot of research on my own."

Yap, a graduate of Konawaena High School on the Big Island and a student at Kapiolani Community College, said that though his teachers and counselors encouraged him, he was the one who did most of the legwork to get into college, figuring out how to apply and get assistance once there.

(Colleges, unlike public schools, are not required to seek out special-education students. Instead, such students must "self-report" and prove they need the extra help to learn.)

Yap has an auditorial processing disability, which means he has difficulty taking in new information without repetition. At KCC he has had to take remedial math and reading courses. He has also spent a lot of time studying and seeking out assistance from teachers.

"I know what my needs are," he said. "I knew that I could best advocate for myself."

In addition to transition planning in high schools, students are supposed to be offered occupational skills programs if that is the path for which they are best suited. Such programs can give students with severe learning disabilities a taste of what it is like to hold a job and hands-on practice at the kinds of tasks that would be expected of them in different positions.

Sinclair and others said many high schools in Hawaii have small to virtually nonexistent occupational training programs and that that needs to change. "You're supposed to get the training before you the leave" school, she said. "If you don't have training, how are you going to transition from 'what I learned in school' to 'what I can do after school'?"

Only the Honolulu district has an occupational skills center, which the state is looking to duplicate, where students can try a variety of potential jobs over a six-week period, including woodworking, auto detailing, stocking at stores and food preparation.

About 75 students attend sessions at the center, and on a recent morning students were busy working in different classrooms. Some were preparing to print designs on T-shirts. Another group was making tuna musubi, carefully spooning rice and tuna into molds.

Gary Tanaka, who heads the center, said students in the program are treated like employees. If they are late three times, they are kicked out (and sent back to their home school). Behavioral problems are dealt with swiftly. And kids are evaluated on occupational skills -- how well they listen, how diligently they work and what their finished products looks like.

Tanaka said the training kids get at the program makes a big difference.

Without it, he said, "many of them would fall by the wayside."

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