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Graduation Letters HB 1618
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Ashley's Bill HB 1618

Here are some of the letters and notes that helped to bring the bill into a law. In addition to this correspondence a local radio station promoted support for the bill, and Kids Together helped to spread the word too. This started with one parent deciding to make a difference, and now every student with a disability in the state of Pennsylvania is legally entitled to attend the graduation ceremonies and maintain their eligibility for continued services.

Letter to Politicians

I am writing to ask for your support with a problem I have recently encountered. While the Department of Education encourages school district board of directors to consider a policy that would embrace the participation of a student with a disability in the ceremonies of graduation (copy of letter enclosed), the final decision is left to each individual school board.

 Recently, the Governor of Illinois signed in to law on January 22, 2005, “Brittany’s Law” (copy enclosed) requiring school districts that operate high schools to allow children with disabilities who have completed four years of high school, but who will continue to receive special education, related services, vocational training, or transition services in accordance with their IEPs, to participate in the commencement ceremonies with their classmates. The bill addresses a problem that has arisen occasionally where school officials have denied students with disabilities the opportunity to participate in graduation ceremonies with their age peers.

 I would like Pennsylvania to follow the lead of the Illinois and pass a similar bill. I have spoken with Representative Russell Fairchild and I’m asking you to join us in helping to create “Ashley’s Law.” Below is why this issue is so important to me. 

 I am a parent of a child with special needs from the Selinsgrove School District. My daughter, Ashley Brubaker, is a junior, attends the learning support program in the morning and the Work Activities Center, funded by the CSIU, in the afternoon.  When she is a senior, she will have enough credits to graduate; but we have decided to keep her in the Work Activities Center, or the newly acquired apartment program, until she is 21 so she can receive additional training, with the hopes of entering the work force.

 I always assumed my daughter would be able to participate in graduation ceremonies with her class (although not receiving her diploma).  However, I was told by the Selinsgrove Director of Special Education this is not possible—the practice of the Selinsgrove School District is students staying in the school system could not participate in the graduation ceremony until they are officially leaving the school (which for Ashley will be when she is 21—three years after her age peers have left the school setting). I know the final decision lies with our school board.  

 I have recently discovered many school districts allow their students with special needs to participate in graduation ceremonies--without receiving their diploma, and allowed to continue their education within the school district until the age of 21.

 I agree with the Department of Education when they state:

“The Department holds that a school board’s affirmative policy to gain the participation of the student with a disability with their non-disabled school aged peer goes far to ensure a meaningful secondary educational experience in this non-academic, but life opportunity event. School districts practicing this policy are commended.” 

 "Districts enhancing their local celebration by extending to the student's families, the student with a disability and sometimes overlooked, the non-disabled student who has been a classmate, and who can all celebrate the years of work and accomplishment of all students in the educational community."

Children, who learn together, learn to live together -- Whether you agree with total educational inclusion or not, social inclusion cannot be disputed. We work hard for all students to be socially accepted.

Since kindergarten, my number one priority for Ashley has been friendships and being part of the class.

 I have asked our Director of Special Education, and am in the process of speaking with the Selinsgrove Superintendent and School Board of Directors asking them to review their existing practice and join area school districts who allow their students with disabilities to participate in graduation ceremonies with their same age peers and continue to receive an education that will result in earning a high school diploma several years later.

 Participation in the ceremony will help normalize their high school experiences and help emphasize the next part of their education and the transition to adult life, community, work, and independence. This is particularly true for Ashley in that she will have completed her course work required of a senior.

 It does not matter what students are in her class, it matters that Ashley sees them every day and has gotten to know them and feel comfortable with them over the years. If the students she sees on a daily basis and feels comfortable with leave school, or graduate from school, and are not there the following year, Ashley will notice.

 These students are the ones she has grown up with, the ones she shares school experiences with, the ones who know her and like her, who wave “hello” to her, and greet her at school functions and out of school in the community. They are her peers. Ashley has the same pride and same feelings as her fellow students. She deserves the opportunity to walk in graduation ceremonies with her kindergarten friends.

 She should have the same opportunity to enjoy the excitement and privileges of her senior year as all the other seniors—and that includes participating in the graduation ceremony. Senior privilege should not be linked to the fact her IEP will continue so she receives “post senior year” vocational and life preparation before she leaves special education.

 In three years, that group of students will no longer be there for her. After 12th grade, Ashley will not be in the school setting; so she would not know very many students. She will participate in a ceremony with a group of strangers.  

 There is a difference between “school” and “education.” After Ashley’s senior year, she will be finished with school, but like a lot of her age peers, she will be pursuing her education. Is it fair to punish Ashley because she has an IEP and requires education funded by the school district?

 According to Jim Buckheit, Executive Director, PA State Board of Education, “school districts may include in their average daily membership count PERMIT students with disabilities identified under Chapter 14 (relating to special education program and services) that choose to participate in graduation ceremonies with their graduating class and continue to receive education services but are not awarded a diploma. Even though they will not be awarded a diploma and will continue to receive educational services under Chapter 14. The participation of such students in graduation ceremonies shall not preclude the school district from counting those students in its membership for subsidy purposes.”

 We strive to treat all persons with dignity and respect, and not allowing Ashley to participate with her current peers in a graduation ceremony would go against this.

 Please contact me so we can arrange a date and time to further discuss this issue. I look forward to meeting with you.

Sincerely,

Mrs. Debra Brubaker
R.D. # 2, Box 225N
Selinsgrove, PA 17870
570-743-5930
humming@ptd.net


 

Letter to Superintendent

April 19, 2005

Dear Dr. Johnson:

I am a parent of a child with special needs from the Selinsgrove School District. My daughter, Ashley Brubaker, is junior, attends the learning support program in the morning and the Work Activities Center in the afternoon. When she is a senior, she will have enough credits to graduate; but we have decided to keep her in the Work Activities Center, or the newly acquired apartment program, until she is 21 so she can receive additional training, with the hopes of entering the work force.

I always assumed my daughter would be able to participate in graduation ceremonies with her class (although not receiving her diploma). However, I was told (by Cindy Vennie, the Director of Special Education) this is not possible—the practice of the Selinsgrove School District is students staying in the school system could not participate in graduations ceremonies until they are officially leaving the school. I know the final decision lies with our school board.

I have recently discovered many school districts allow their students with special needs to participate in graduation ceremonies--without receiving their diploma, and allowed to continue their education within the school district until the age of 21.

I have also received a letter from the PA Department of Education (copy attached) stating:

“The Department of Education encourages school district board of directors to examine current policy and consider a policy that would embrace the participation of a student with a disability in the ceremonies of graduation.”

“The Department holds that a school board’s affirmative policy to gain the participation of the student with a disability with their non-disabled school aged peer goes far to ensure a meaningful secondary educational experience in this non-academic, but life opportunity event. School districts practicing this policy are commended.”

I agree with the Department when they state, "districts enhancing their local celebration by extending to the student's families, the student with a disability and sometimes overlooked, the non-disabled student who has been a classmate, and who can all celebrate the years of work and accomplishment of all students in the educational community."

Children, who learn together, learn to live together -- Whether you agree with total educational inclusion or not, social inclusion cannot be disputed. We work hard for all students to be socially accepted.

Since kindergarten, my number one priority for Ashley has been friendships and being part of the class.

I am asking you to review your existing practice and join area school districts who allow their students with disabilities to participate in graduation ceremonies with their same age peers and continue to receive an education that will result in earning a high school diploma several years later.

Participation in the ceremony will help normalize her high school experiences and help emphasize to her that the next part of her education is the transition to adult life, community, work, and independence. This is particularly true for Ashley in that she will have completed her course work required of a senior.

It does not matter what students are in her class, it matters that Ashley sees them every day and has gotten to know them and feel comfortable with them over the years. If the students she sees on a daily basis and feels comfortable with leave school, or graduate from school, and are not there the following year, Ashley will notice.

These students are the ones she has grown up with, the ones she shares school experiences with, the ones who know her and like her, who wave “hello” to her, and greet her at school functions and out of school in the community. They are her peers. Ashley has the same pride and same feelings as her fellow students. She deserves the opportunity to walk in graduation ceremonies with her kindergarten friends.

She should have the same opportunity to enjoy the excitement and privileges of her senior year as all the other seniors—and that includes participating in the graduation ceremony. Senior privilege should not be linked to the fact her IEP will continue so she receives “post senior year” vocational and life preparation before she leaves special education.

In three years, that group of students will no longer be there for her. After 12th grade, Ashley will not be in the school setting; so she would not know very many students. She will participate in a ceremony with a group of strangers.

There is a difference between “school” and “education.” After Ashley’s senior year, she will be finished with school, but like a lot of her age peers, she will be pursuing her education. Is it fair to punish Ashley because she has an IEP and requires education funded by the school district?

According to Jim Buckheit, Executive Director, PA State Board of Education, “school districts may include in their average daily membership count PERMIT students with disabilities identified under Chapter 14 (relating to special education program and services) that choose to participate in graduation ceremonies with their graduating class and continue to receive education services but are not awarded a diploma. Even though they will not be awarded a diploma and will continue to receive educational services under Chapter 14. The participation of such students in graduation ceremonies shall not preclude the school district from counting those students in its membership for subsidy purposes.”

Recently, Illinois Governor signed in to law on January 22, 2005, “Brittany’s Law” (copy attached) requiring school districts that operate high schools to allow children with disabilities who have completed four years of high school, but who will continue to receive special education, related services, vocational training, or transition services in accordance with their IEPs, to participate in the commencement ceremonies with their classmates. The bill addresses a problem that has arisen occasionally where school officials have denied students with disabilities the opportunity to participate in graduation ceremonies with their age peers.

We strive to treat all persons with dignity and respect, and not allowing Ashley to participate with her current peers in a graduation ceremony would go against this.

Recently at Ashley’s IEP meeting I suggested the team include the following in her IEP:

“Long-term goal – “to improve social integration and perception with age appropriate nondisabled peers in the school community.”

Ashley will have the opportunity to participate in the following activities/extra curricular opportunities – school dances, sporting events, and any ceremony related to her grade such as graduation, award ceremonies, choir concerts, and field trips in to the community with the appropriate supports needed to be successful.

Measured by – the number of events themselves and the opportunity to be included in those events.”

Ms. Vennie denied my request. I did not sign the IEP. I had hoped to approach this issue through the front door with Ms. Vennie’s support. However, she is now forcing me to come in through the side door (and that’s ok; we’re used to coming in the side door).

Ms. Vennie said this is not personal. Yet, when she looked at me and said, “Now, Deb, honestly, when was the last time Ashley was invited to a sleep-over,” she made it personal. That remark was both irrelevant and a low blow and something I didn’t expect out of the Director of Special Education.

I will now be pursuing this cause, using all avenues available to me.

Sincerely,

Mrs. Debra Brubaker
R.D. # 2, Box 225N
Selinsgrove, PA 17870
570-743-5930
humming@ptd.net


 

Notes from Selinsgrove School Board

• I know, at this time, the final decision lies with our school board, which is why I am before you today.

• There is a difference between “school” and “education.” After Ashley’s senior year, she will be finished with school, but like a lot of her age peers, she will be pursuing her education. Is it fair to punish Ashley because she has an IEP and requires education funded by the school district? Having an IEP override credit requirements is an example of discrimination.

• I was told by the Selinsgrove Superintendent the practice of not allowing students to participate in the graduation ceremony unless they are accepting their diploma has been going on for over 35 years. Continuing to do the same thing for years doesn’t make it right.

A lot has happened in 35 years. 35 years ago, when I was in grade school, the classroom for children with special needs was in the basement—these children were not to be seen or heard. Through change, inclusion has brought our children together—to learn from each other. Whether or not you believe in total educational inclusion, social inclusion can not and should not be disputed.

• If there was one person I thought would understand the need for social inclusion, I hoped it would have been the Director of Special Education. Yet, when I explained the reasoning behind my request for participation with age-appropriate peers--the girls who during elementary and middle school were invited to our home to swim, the friends who invited her to their birthday parties and sleepovers, the Director of Special Education looked at me and asked “Now, Deb, honestly, when was the last time Ashley was invited to a sleep-over?” That remark was both irrelevant and something I didn’t expect out of the Director of Special Education. I have to ask each of you, do you remember those special friends (and even not so special) from high school? I know I do. Do you remember friends from junior high? I know I do. And lastly, even though my memory is far from what it used to be, I remember my first friends—those from elementary school. And so does Ashley, who has a much better memory than many of us here today—she remembers the first time she united with her peers—the graduating class of 2006.

• Under Selinsgrove’s current practice, Ashley would not be permitted to participate in the graduation ceremony with her age appropriate peers. Under the current practice Ashley can not participate until she is officially leaving the system—when she is 21—three years after the group of students she grew up have moved on. At 21, she will participate in the graduation ceremony, one of the most life’s most memorable milestones, with a group of strangers.

• All students will benefit from children with special needs participating in the graduation ceremony because they learn to respect the differences and struggles of their peers; and hopefully this lesson will carry through their daily adult lives.

• In speaking with Representative Russell Fairchild he believes “There are too many special needs students who are stigmatized by the fact they are not considered part of the graduating class, despite completion of their four years of high school. Currently, some school districts permit special needs students to participate in the exercises, while others do not. It is time for a consistent policy throughout the Commonwealth.

• Therefore, Representative Fairchild introduced a Bill to the legislature on May 25th. This legislation will standardize the practice for special needs seniors across Pennsylvania.” (This bill will amend the act of March 10, 1949 (P.L.30, No.14), entitled "An act relating to the public school system, including certain provisions applicable as well to private and parochial schools; amending, revising, consolidating and changing the laws relating thereto," providing for participation in graduation ceremony.)

Representative Fairchild is fairly confident this Bill will pass and beginning March 1, 2006, each school district that operates a high school must have a policy and procedures that allow a child with a disability who will have completed four years of high school at the end of a school year to participate in the graduation ceremony of the student's high school graduating class and receive a certificate of completion if the student's individualized education program prescribes only special education, transition planning, transition services or related services beyond the student's four years of high school.

• After today’s media attention, I have received numerous e-mails and phone calls supporting participation in the graduation ceremony. I’ve heard several parents talk about how their child wanted to participate in the ceremony, but were denied; and years later the parents are still very upset about not seeing their child participate in the graduation ceremony with their peers.

• No one really likes change, but without change, where would we be? Together we can change and turn this out-dated practice in to a welcoming policy. I’m asking the School Board to lead the way and change your existing practice before it becomes a mandatory law; To willingly join the Pennsylvania Department of Education, Representative Russell Fairchild, Representative Merle Phillips, Senator John Gordner, numerous members of the legislature, Frank Williams of the CSIU, and area school districts who believe students with disabilities should participate in graduation ceremonies with their same age peers and continue to receive an education that will result in receiving a high school diploma several years later.

• Again, quoting Jordan Gulick, “In order to move forward with our lives we must accept our past, realize change, and accept the first and last time we graduate as a class.”

 


 

Letter to Other School Districts

I am a parent of a child with special needs from the Selinsgrove School District. My daughter is junior, attends a learning support program and the Work Activities Center. When she is a senior, she will have enough credits to graduate, but we have decided to keep her in the Work Activities Center until she is 21 so she can receive additional training, with the hopes of entering the work force.

I always assumed my daughter would be able to participate in graduation ceremonies with her class (although not receiving her diploma). However, I was told (by the Director of Special Education at Selinsgrove) this is not possible--students staying in the school system could not participate in graduations ceremonies until they are officially leaving the school. I know the final decision lies with our local school board.

I have recently discovered many school districts allow their students with special needs to participate in graduation ceremonies--without receiving their diploma, and allowed to continue their education within the school district until the age of 21.

I was hoping you could share with me your district’s policy on allowing students with a disability to participate in their class graduation ceremony, without receiving their diploma, with the understanding the student will remain in the school system.

I have also received a letter from the PA Department of Education stating:

“The Department of Education encourages school district board of directors to examine current policy and consider a policy that would embrace the participation of a student with a disability in the ceremonies of graduation.”

“The Department holds that a school board’s affirmative policy to gain the participation of the student with a disability with their non-disabled school aged peer goes far to ensure a meaningful secondary educational experience in this non-academic, but life opportunity event. School districts practicing this policy are commended.”

I agree with the Department when they state, "districts enhancing their local celebration by extending to the student's families, the student with a disability and sometimes overlooked, the non-disabled student who has been a classmate, and who can all celebrate the years of work and accomplishment of all students in the educational community."



Thank you for your time,

Mrs. D. Brubaker
humming@ptd.net
 

 

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