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The Art of Graduating a Student with Special Needs

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The Art of Graduating a Student with Special Needs

As parents of children with special needs, we face their challenges head-on with a variety of helpers, especially those teachers and aides that work with them day in and day out as they go through their school years. Tools like IEPs and 504s can help parents make sure that their children’s needs are being met in the classroom from year to year.

As your child finishes up elementary school and looks toward middle school, all of you will need to think about what those coming high school years will look like. Alabama restructured their high school diploma tracks in 2013, changing up each student’s path to graduation. Here is what you need to know about the available diploma options for your special needs child as you look forward to those later years of their education.

Alabama’s Pathways to Graduation

Special needs students have three pathways to a high school diploma. This change to the way Alabama structures its graduation requirements became effective during the 2013-2014 school year. With the new diploma structure, the Alabama High School Graduation Exam goes away and students now have the option of choosing one of those three pathways by the end of their eighth grade school year.

General Education Diploma

Previously known to most of us as the Regular Alabama High School Diploma, this new diploma has minimum requirements for completion and allows each school system the freedom to add endorsements. This replaces the tiered diploma program Alabama had previously. This type of diploma is open to all students with and without special needs.

Essentials/Life Skills Diploma

In the past, this type of diploma was known as the Alabama Occupational Diploma, where students are able to take career and/or technical education courses, including cooperative education and work-based experience classes. This diploma track is open to students with and without special needs.


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Alternative Achievement Standards

Prior to 2013, students who completed twenty-four credits or the Individualized Education Plan or passed the AHSGE, but didn’t complete the requirements for the regular high school diploma received a Certificate of Attendance. With this revamp of the state’s diploma structure, this type of diploma is an option for students who are on the Alabama Extended Standards. The courses for this diploma include Life Skills, Pre-Vocational, Community-Based Instruction, and more.

Students are entitled to services through their local public school system through age twenty-one unless they earn a diploma from one of these three tracks. Prior to graduation, special needs students and their families must fill out the Notice of Intent Regarding Special Education Services form to demonstrate that they are aware that graduation ends the students’ access to services from the school system.

What’s Next? College or Career?

The question that lingers from looking at those diploma requirements is this: how does this affect college? Often, we hold up that four-year degree as the key to occupational success, but truly it is not the only track toward lifelong employment. What these new choices do is make it possible to have that career or technical education focus be a clear path toward graduation and, to a limited degree, education beyond high school.

For students who want to attend a four-year college, the General Education Diploma is necessary to achieving that end. That means, regardless of the types of added endorsements your local school system might have for a type of diploma, at the bare minimum your child has to graduate with a General Education Diploma in order to apply to any four-year institution. This is on top of any other requirements for admission your child’s preferred school might have.

For two-year colleges, a student may be able to graduate with either the General Education Diploma or the Essentials/Life Skills Diploma. Again, students still need to fulfill the college’s admission requirements, including taking the ACT, but the Essentials/Life Skills courses are only accepted by two-year colleges, not four-year.

See Also

For students on the Essentials/Life Skills Diploma track, the emphasis is on career preparedness. Courses focus on readying students for entering the workforce in whatever area they choose. All school systems are required to offer these courses with highly qualified content-area teachers. Additionally, students on this track also take four years of English, Math, Science, and Social Studies courses appropriate for that focus. Those classes may be taken with or separate from general education classes, but will have instruction specific to the requirements for the Essentials/Life Skills Diploma.


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As always, you and your child will need to work with your local school system and your education team to find out what track works best for your child’s education long term. While your child must fill out the Pathway form at the end of eighth grade, the form must be filled out at the end of each school year thereafter, giving you and your child a chance to change the track. Whether it’s the Essentials/Life Skills or General Education tracks, students now have clearer and more defined plans for readying themselves for the next phase of their lives.

Some Parting Thoughts

For parents of children with special needs, regardless of the type of special needs, the future is terrifying and exciting and complicated all at the same time. The unknowns might outweigh the knowns fast and the confidence that you might have in your child right now can dissolve in the glare of what the years to come will look like. When thoughts like that start to get me down, I try to think of both of my boys, one with special needs and the other typical. Sure, my oldest son faces challenges because he is on the autism spectrum, but his brother faces the same questions that he does: what will the future look like for me? What do I want to do with my education and, later, my work life? These are questions we all have faced and now we have the chance to guide our children through the same process.

Regardless of the challenges facing your child, which may not look the same as the kid on the next row, education gives each one the chance to find a path and follow it. As parents, we are our children’s advocates as they follow their chosen paths. I look forward to seeing where my sons’ paths take them as we look to kindergarten for one and fourth grade for the other. Now that I know a little more about what to expect from high school, I feel ready to help them both decide which way to go.

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Alabama restructured their high school diploma tracks in 2013, changing up each student’s path to graduation. Here is what you need to know.

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