Grad rates for Georgia’s disabled students among worst in nation

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Kim Gude began to suspect that her son had autism the way so many other parents have: because of an offhand comment from another mom who noticed his behavior when he was only about 3.

So began an odyssey of online research and medical bills for testing and therapy.

This was about six years ago. She and her husband decided that other Atlanta parents shouldn’t have to hack through the same thicket of often confusing and bad information, so they started the Harris-Gude Foundation to raise awareness and to connect parents with resources.

“The biggest message I tell parents is start your kids early,” Gude said. Children with special needs should begin therapy before school starts, she said. Though warning signs are often evident by age 2 or 3, many kids go undiagnosed until first grade or after, by which time they’ve already fallen behind in school.

Three red flags for autism that she didn’t initially recognize in her own son when he was still a toddler: excessive hyperactivity, aggressive behavior and trouble falling asleep at nights. Contact the group at

Georgia has the nation’s third-lowest graduation rate for students with disabilities, according to federal data. Here are the top five states and bottom five states from the 2012-13 school year, the most recent school year available.

Top five:

1. Arkansas 80.4 percent

2. Oklahoma 78.5 percent

tie 3. Kansas 77.8 percent

tie 3. Texas 77.8 percent

5. Alabama 76.9 percent

Bottom five:

1. Mississippi 22.5 percent

2. Nevada 26.4 percent

3. Georgia 35.1 percent

4. Louisiana 36.7 percent

5. Oregon 37.2 percent

Go to or for data of other states.

Source: U.S. Education Department.

Georgia has the nation’s third-lowest graduation rate for students with disabilities, and with one in 12 of the state’s students disabled it means thousands don’t get a diploma.

The most recent graduation rate for students with disabilities in Georgia is 36.5 percent, far below the national average of 62 percent. Georgia’s graduation rate for all students, which includes those with disabilities, is 72.5 percent. The gap between the graduation rates for those with and without disabilities is one of the widest in America, according to a recent national report.

About 800 teachers met earlier this month on St. Simons Island for a weeklong state-funded conference to work on that and other issues. State Education Department officials want to raise the graduation rate for students with disabilities to 50 percent by 2018.

“I hope we can do better than that,” said Debbie Gay, the department’s director of special education services and supports.

What’s gone wrong?

Explanations for the low graduation rates vary. Georgia has one of the most rigorous graduation requirements for a general education diploma, which some experts say hurts its grad rate for students with disabilities. Students with disabilities can get a special education diploma or certificate to complete their high school education. Students with disabilities also have higher absentee rates, which causes some students to fall behind.

Some parents blame the poor graduation rates on teachers with low expectations.

“It starts early with having a good relationship with the teachers and the parapros, with letting them know you’re not expecting less for your child,” said Stephanie Kieszak-Holloway, whose daughter is blind and has autism.

She recalls how one DeKalb County teacher was surprised that Holloway’s daughter did homework at home, which suggested to her that most did not. Last fall, Holloway enrolled her daughter in a charter school that specializes in children with autism because she thought it was better than her neighborhood middle school.

Former teacher Kristyne L. Seidenberg is now a lawyer who specializes in cases involving students with disabilities. She said administrators don’t properly train teachers to notice unidentified disabilities and that teachers are discouraged from reporting them if they do. That leads to a late identification or none at all, she said.

Retired Fulton County special education teacher Merle Schlesinger echoed the concern about identifying students with disabilities. Schlesinger, who taught for 11 years, said some students with disabilities are pushed toward online courses or alternative schools by teachers who aren’t equipped to work with them.

“They want to make it easier for the teacher,” she said.

Loreen Booker Brown, another DeKalb parent whose son is now in his early 20s, has seen schools from the inside as a substitute teacher. She said too many parents, especially those in poverty, are pushovers.

“They’re not going to be pushing for what their kids need,” she said, “because they don’t know what their kids need.”

The state’s improvement plan

State and local educators agree more must be done to identify and work with students with disabilities as early as pre-kindergarten.

State officials are in the second year of a five-year plan to help more of those students earn their high school diplomas. This summer, state officials will be doing training for district support staff that will focus on data analysis and ways to better engage with families and community leaders who work closely with students with disabilities.

Georgia has tweaked a graduation requirement for math. It now allows a team to recommend alternate math courses for a student whose disability has affected the student’s performance in order to meet the state’s math requirements. State officials also note students have some flexibility to meet requirements in high school courses, even if they failed an End of Course Test, which makes up 20 percent of the grade in a class. That flexibility is available if appropriate supports and accommodations are available to the student, officials say.

Despite the flexibility in some areas, state officials believe it’s still important to maintain its general graduation requirements.

“I personally think having a high bar is a good … because the majority of those students can meet the bar with our support,” Gay said.

The graduation rate for students with disabilities in some states is twice as high as Georgia’s, but different states have different guidelines. National experts are worried about states loosening their requirements for students with disabilities or pushing those students toward online and alternative education programs.

“That’s a major civil rights violation that a lot of people are not aware of,” said Jennifer DePaoli, an education adviser whose group, Civic Enterprises, co-wrote a recent report on graduation rates. “These are the students who need the most and these are the programs that are least likely to provide the support they need.”

A search for solutions

Some local school districts are embarking on their own efforts to better assist students with disabilities. Cobb County, Georgia’s second-largest school district, will put a special student services administrator in every school this fall to work with those students, their teachers and parents to improve their academic performance. Cobb will announce other proposed improvements in August, Assistant Superintendent Tracie Doe said.

In Gwinnett County, the state’s largest school district, officials have dived into test data to determine areas where students need help. Gwinnett’s graduation rate for students with disabilities rose from 31.8 percent in 2013 to 38.8 percent the following year, officials said.

The search for the solution to higher graduation rates continues in the state’s largest school district.

Kevin Tashlein, Gwinnett’s associate superintendent for school improvement and operations, summed up the task for his district and Georgia.

“The work is hard,” he said, “and the challenges are hard.”

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