Why Keep This Poor Girl From Graduating?

3 Jul

There’s a story out there about a New Jersey girl with Down syndrome who wants to graduate with her class.  Alicia Vitiello wants to walk with the rest of her cohort in 2007 but the local school board has a policy that a student can not walk across the stage until their program of study is complete.  The linked story is about how the White House has even weighed in on the side of Alicia.  The school board seems to be holding their ground at the moment, but I’m sure that once the USDOE gets involved and threatens them with a section 504 violation, they’ll cave in.


The issue is not IF Alicia graduates, it is WHEN.  Alicia is 17 and will presumably be 18 for graduation next year.  She will probably have enough credits to graduate.  So what is the issue?


The issue is that students in special education are eligible to be served by public education until they are 21.  Most special education students do not stay that long, however.  When their class graduates, they graduate and that’s it.  They go on to get jobs, go to college or be unemployed hoodlums like their regular peers.  But a select few who are in the moderate or severe intellectual range of functioning will stay in school until they age out and are more or less shoved out the door.  Is it so these students can gain more skills and better transition into adulthood?  Well, that is the the theory.  That is the reason for having a longer course of study.  But very few school districts have anything to offer a student beyond those first 4 years.  So basically they are going to get more of the same thing for 3-4 more years that they got during the first 4. 


What Alicia’s local school is trying to say is this: when you cross the stage and graduate, you are finished.  It’s the end of the line.  Graduation is the last and final step before leaving school.  But if Alicia’s parents have their way, that will not be the case.  Alicia will be back at school the next fall and for several subsequent years until she can’t come back anymore.


Is this a problem?  Probably not so much for Alicia, as her parents are well-to-do, influential and Alicia seems like a sweet girl.  She will do what they tell her to do.  The problem comes when you get a student who has graduated, who comes back and then we try to get him/her to work for us teachers.  Remember, they already have their diploma.  What incentive is there to perform?  Some kids do run into this, especially some moderate kids who have enough marbles to realize that they don’t have to if they don’t want to.  Graduation is a goal for some.  It is also an exercise that provides a sense of closure for parents, caregivers and teachers.  When Alicia finally leaves her school, she will not have that, because her chance was spent years before.


The articles states that Alicia should be given a chance to graduate with those she started kindergarten with instead of comparative strangers when she is 21.  But the fact is, if Alicia is not fully included, she probably doesn’t know that many of her classmates anyway.  It is also a myth that she would be graduating with strangers at age 21.  Fact is, while her cohort will be almost graduated from college by the time she finishes, she will be one of the best known students in the school as this year’s freshman know her and so will every subsequent year of new students.  Recall my earlier story of Graduation Day.  All of my graduates crossed the stage after they had gone the entire distance.  They were not coming back.


Our district in Magnolia County leaves it up to the parents to decide when they want their student to graduate.  And they generally choose to wait until they are 21 or finished.  However, next year Spaz is planning on crossing the stage a year early with his younger sister, and then coming back for one more year.  (Stay tuned for THAT one!LOL!) 


There are some good reasons for waiting:

– It gives us teachers more time to prepare a student for that big occasion.  We have a more mature student that can better tolerate all the silliness, boredom and waiting associated with a long ceremony.

– That last year is EXPENSIVE!  Taking a few years to save up for the pictures, the invitations, the prom, the limo, the graduation fees, the paraphanalia and stuff assocated with graduation can not be a bad thing. 

– Think more intently on transition.  Most post-school sheltered workshops won’t even take a student who is not 21.   It would be nice if high schools had something similar for the 18-21 crowd, but they don’t. 

-It provides closure for everyone involved.  Like my prior posts on the subject describes, it can be a bit like a funeral.  But closure really is needed.  And perhaps this is just my own personal bias coming through.


In theory, that 18-21 time period should be for post school planning and transition.  In fact, it is simply more time for the parent to procrastinate.  If Alicia were truly ready to graduate and get a job, this would not be an issue at all.  She’d graduate in May or June and be working by July or August.  But that is NOT the case, here.  Her parents want the school to carry her for several more years because they can.  I agree that the school should offer more, but they don’t.  If there is a better post-school environment, she should be in it. 


I get the school board’s position.  It sounds a bit cruel, but a person only graduates from high school once.  It should mean something.  It should mean that whole beginning/end thing the valedictorians and commencement speakers talk about.  Alicia is not really graduating because she will be coming back in the fall, unlike all those other folks who will have walked with her.  She will be more isolated and alone than ever, having already done all the graduation stuff.  There is no longer a ceremony to look forward to.


The school board WILL cave.  Alicia’s father is a leader in the township’s Republican Party and the white house is involved.  What do you think will happen?  Frankly, it isn’t worth fighting about.  Let those parents have their way.  The press paints a picture of a little girl with Down syndrome who just wants to graduate and makes it look like the school board is denying her rights and keeping her from her dream.  It’s a touching story and good for a headline or two.  But it is not wholly accurate. 


I’ve actually graduated a few of my students earlier than was necessary.  One of them had a job that I knew may not be there if I kept him his full 3 extra years, so we moved him along.  Most of the rest would be 21 but eligible for another year based on our county’s  “THROUGH 21 policy” which means the kid who turned 22 in August could have stuck around the whole year.  But I moved him through and graduated him at 21 anyway.  Why?  Because I needed more space for incoming kids and the parents were all simply procrastinating.  They needed the kick in the rear that NOT going back in the fall provided.  Another year would have done nothing for the student while enabling the parents’ poor behaviors. 


Frankly, after 7 years in our program, I’ve done as much as I can.  I need the closure of a graduation ceremony as much as the parents after investing so many years and so much effort with these kids.  Doing it 3 years prematurely is sort of a kick in the gut to me.  But if the parents insist, I’ll go along with it.  I may try to talk them out of it, but they have the final say.  I’m fine with honoring their wishes.  But when the last and final day of school finally comes for a post grad student (and it will eventually come), I’m going to be getting ready for someone’s graduation.  That student and their family will probably be getting ready for a waiting list.

 My Prior Posts on graduation:

Graduation Day Part 1

Graduation Day Part 2 



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