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News | Education

Different Diplomas For Different Students, But At What Cost?

Oregon families are cheering high school graduates this time of year. But standard high school diplomas aren’t in the cards for everyone.

Yesterday, we learned of efforts to connect with adult-aged dropouts.  Today, Rob Manning looks at how the federal government has complicated college plans for some teenagers with special needs.

Layah Carey

Layah Carey

Layah Carey is a freshman at Corvallis High School. She’s dyslexic and struggles with math as a result. She’s learned to hide her disability, even from friends.

“Waiting until everybody else has gone in their class to go into my math class, or hiding behind my binder, so that people don’t see the kind of math I’m working on, so they don’t see it, and asking questions on why it’s so easy and stuff.”

Layah hopes for a career in juvenile justice – or maybe teaching. She’s been helping out in a high-needs classroom.

“I like being able to see them improve on things. It just always makes me happy that when they’re having a problem with their reading or writing, and we just work through it, that I helped them.”

But both those careers require a college degree.

And that may be in jeopardy because of her problems with math.

Layah Carey is on track to earn a “modified” diploma. It’s the same number of credits as Oregon’s “standard” diploma, but it’s more flexible when it comes to which credits.

Last year, the federal government stopped paying federal financial aid for students who earn non-standard diplomas – like Oregon’s modified diploma.

The change is sending shockwaves through Oregon schools – even among teachers like Bill Johnson, who aren’t part of Special Education.

 “There are definite financial strings attached to the modified diploma now that were never there before – and we feel it our obligation to inform our parents.”

Cenutry High School

Cenutry High School

Rob Manning/OPB

Johnson is the theater teacher at Hillsboro’s Century High School. He says parents feel forced into a choice: the services your child is entitled to, or federal aid for college.

“I’m hearing parents say flat-out ‘My son or daughter will not receive special education services because I want them to be able to get funding for college.’ That’s hard, because the child is struggling. It’s with the help that they will get them to the level of academic success that they can graduate.”

Roberta Dunn is with a disability-focused non-profit called FACT Oregon. She says for young people with disabilities, the focus should be less on college – and more on finishing high school.

“Well, I’ll be thrilled — over the moon — if we can ensure that Oregon students experiencing any level of disability, graduate with a diploma.”

According to Oregon’s latest figures, only 54 percent of disabled students graduate in four years.

State representative Sara Gelser agrees that a modified diploma is better than dropping out. But she adds,  “A student is much better served to have a standard diploma with a low grade point average, than a modified diploma with a high grade point average - because that standard diploma opens up so many more doors for that student.”

Some colleges and branches of the military reject modified diploma grads.

Officials say Congress didn’t have Oregon’s diplomas in mind when it approved the financial aid changes. It was more about costs and responding to reports that some colleges were gaming the system, to get federal aid money.

Veronica Garcia is with Portland Community College.

“You know, sometimes that strict sort of ‘We’re going to stop this, to stop this other,’ has the unintended consequences of harming – and with Obama’s completion agenda, it really just makes it harder for the community college.”

Students can still qualify for scholarships and other financial aid, without a standard diploma, but federal aid is often vital to making college affordable.

As parents learn of the changes, many wonder how their kids will be affected.

Scott, Dawn, James, Mikael and dog Roscoe at Crater Lake.

Scott, Dawn, James, Mikael and dog Roscoe at Crater Lake.

Dawn Waddington’s son, Mikael is a freshman at David Douglas High. He’s on the autism spectrum.

“There have been some years, I’ve thought ‘oh, no problem, he’s going to be just fine, he’s going to graduate with a general diploma, he’ll be fine.’ And then other times, I think — ‘I don’t know what he’s going to do’,” Dawn says.

Mikael is on track to a modified diploma – meaning he’d be ineligible for federal aid for college, or for vocational or other training schools.

Ninth grader from Corvallis — Layah Carey — is convinced college should be in her future. Her mother, Cecelia, agrees, and says the recent changes are wrong.

“It discriminates – anyone who has that disability, who may not be able to private-pay to go to any kind of college. So, if I could private pay, maybe I wouldn’t be panicking as much. But I can’t private pay.”

State officials say students should stay in school — and maybe even for an extra year, to get a standard diploma, or a GED, and become eligible for federal aid.

The Carey family hopes that legislators pass a bill to ensure state financial aid is available, so that students like Layah can go to college, with or without a standard diploma.

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