Magazine article AMLE Magazine

College and Career Readiness for Special Needs Students

Magazine article AMLE Magazine

College and Career Readiness for Special Needs Students

Article excerpt

Thinking about career and college readiness for a sixth grader is a little too soon for some teachers and parents. As a parent, I felt hard-pressed to decide the future for my son when he entered the middle grades. He was a young man in no rush to assume the responsibilities of growing up, and my husband and I wondered if pushing him to identify career aspirations at such a young age was putting the cart before the horse. You can't rush development: He wasn't really ready.

Our son also has special needs. Yet, in retrospect, I see many ways we and his teachers could have addressed aspects of college and career readiness that would have paved the way for smoother decision making later, when he was ready.

Helping students with special needs and their parents identify a path that will lead to greater success in high school and beyond is an essential component of middle school. Why? The college and career focus for special needs students doesn't get much attention until high school, and even then the pathway for students with significant disabilities is narrowly defined or dismissed altogether. Yet, psychologists tell us that the middle grades are the time when young adolescents begin to build visions of their "future" or "hoped-for" selves-true even of adolescents who learn differently.

Middle school teachers in the know can change widespread "no-way" attitudes to "never-theless" attitudes. They can make college life and career aspirations an educated reality for students with special needs, opening the doors for more productive "future" selves.

Recognizing Differences

There are three major differences between high school and college when in comes to students with special needs. Because these differences affect what needs to happen in the middle school to prepare students for transition, they are important to review.

First, high school students with disabilities are guaranteed a free and appropriate secondary education, but when they enter college, although ADA and Section 504 aim to remove barriers and provide reasonable accommodations, there are no laws that guarantee special programs.

Second, parents of high school students with special needs can be actively involved in advocating for appropriate services and can reach out to teachers and review their teen's school records. In college, however, students must be able to advocate for themselves. It is against the law for college faculty to communicate with parents without the student's written permission.

Finally, IEPs or 504s are legal documents that must be followed when a student is in high school, but once they enter college, there are no IEPs. The Disability Services Office will develop a plan with the student based on documentation of the disability, but only accommodations are allowed; modifications are not allowed in courses taken for credit.

tips for Success

With these important differences in mind, how can middle school teachers work with parents and students who have special needs to broaden their access to postsecondary experiences?

Research shows that the middle grades are a tipping point for "average" students. These are the years when academic self-concept, independence, persistence, and work ethic begin to solidify, and when choices are made that affect access to high school curriculum and, by default, to college entrance.

Robert Balfanz's studies have shown that the middle years, not high school years, are the linchpin to career and college success. For students with special needs, the middle school years are an even more precarious tipping point. What can we do to improve their chances of success?

1. teach Self-Awareness and Self-Advocacy

The single most important thing we can do at the middle level, aside from continuing to strength students' academic and social skills, is to start self-awareness and self-advocacy portfolios for our students. Many colleges have tools to help parents and students determine if they are ready for college. …

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