Understanding the Barriers to High School Graduation

Today’s guest post comes from the Real Learning for Real Life Coalition, of which Illinois PTA is a member, and is by Stephanie J. Schmitz Bechteler, Ph.D., the Vice President and Executive Director of the Chicago Urban League.

High school graduation is one of the most important milestones teenagers must achieve as they transition into late adolescence and early adulthood. While there are many critical changes to be made regarding the quality of high school programs, curriculum, teaching strategies and school climate—particularly for our most vulnerable students—it is an undeniable truth that earning a high school diploma is the first step along the pathway to college or professional training and career development.

Some reformers believe that in the short term, we might have to grudgingly accept lower graduation rates as we increase educational standards and implement true college and career readiness in the high schools. This solution feels unsatisfying and potentially harmful to the students and parents most impacted by the resource and talent deficits found in many underperforming schools. The solution should not be to penalize students for the challenges faced by the schools and teachers, but to ensure that the schools can provide the students with the comprehensive set of services and supports that they need to succeed.

For students that face barriers or challenges above and beyond what their peers face, the attainment of a high school diploma is not always a guarantee. There are many factors, both individual, academic, and community-based, that can stand between a student and their diploma. Research over the past few decades has shown that these factors are more likely to impact groups often identified as the most vulnerable in our schools: students of color, students living in low-income household, students with disabilities and students with limited English speaking abilities. What are their challenges, and what do they need to succeed?

It is difficult to do all of the potential barriers justice in a short article, so this will summarize some of the main areas, and provide links to learn more. Academic barriers can begin very young for some students. Research has shown that access to quality pre-K and Kindergarten programming can provide students a foundation that lasts for the remainder of their academic career. Not performing at grade level in reading and math, even as early as 3rd grade, can be indicative of struggles that will be hard for students to overcome later on in their schooling. It’s clear that investments in early and elementary education are critical to high school success. Once students enter high school, student performance in the freshman year can predict how the student will fair during their remaining years. Students that are chronically truant and scoring low grades in core subjects are candidates for further assessment and intervention. And all students in high school should also be taught not just how to study and prepare for tests, but how to think critically can build what is known as an “investigative” approach to life and to studies. All students, not just those in the best schools, should have their curiosity nurtured and be rewarded for asking, “why?” or “how?” or “what if?”

Students also face personal and community barriers that are not as readily solved by schools, but need to at minimum be recognized and considered by teachers, administrators and education policymakers. Personal experiences faced by students—homelessness, trauma, health or mental health issues, lack of caring adults, needing to contribute financially to the home, involvement in the criminal justice system, racism and other forms of discrimination—significantly impact school performance and educational outcomes. It is hard enough to be a consistently engaged student, let alone if you are a student that has to balance these other factors with your learning. Schools that have the resources to provide supportive services above and beyond academic help, such as counseling or special programming, may be able to offset some of these challenges. But many schools in under-resourced communities lack the resources to scale the programming to fit student need. This is where community-school partnerships and adequate funding mechanisms are necessary. Community leaders, education reformers, policymakers and elected officials must work together to accurately and honestly examine equity gaps across the state and districts and then provide an influx of resources based on school or district need. This means that not all schools will get the same level of resources to support their students, nor should they. Schools get what they need, based on need and the statewide commitment to support all students equitably.

LINKS

 

Organizing an IEP Binder

Any parent who has attended an Individualized Education Program (IEP) meeting for their child can tell you what an overwhelming and confusing experience it can be. Understood, a website in English and Spanish dedicated to helping parents support their child with special needs, has resources to create an IEP binder.

An IEP binder provides parents with a great way to track their child’s progress and keep key information readily at hand during IEP meetings. Understood suggests including:

  • IEP Binder Checklist
  • School Contact Sheet
  • Parent-School Communication Log
  • IEP Goal Tracker

Downloadable versions of all of the above are also provided, as well as a short video on how to put it all together and use it.

Understood also suggests using six tab dividers to separate materials into communication, evaluations, IEP, report cards and progress notes, sample work, and behavior. They also suggest including a supply pouch to ensure you have pens, sticky notes, and highlighters readily available at your meeting. You might also consider including the list of over 500 accommodations for an IEP or 504 plan from A Day in Our Shoes that Illinois PTA has highlighted before.

Illinois’s Teacher Shortage Visualized

The Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) recently released a survey showing school districts in Illinois have 1,006 unfilled teacher positions this year. Teacher vacancies can mean larger class sizes or, in smaller school districts, classes that just aren’t offered. In addition, 74% of the vacancies are in majority-minority school districts, while 81% are in districts where a majority of students are low-income. The net result is that while all Illinois students’ educations suffer from issues related to teacher vacancies, those students who have been historically marginalized face the greatest barriers to a high-quality education and support.

The effect of these teacher shortages have been visualized by Advance Illinois, providing an interactive map and graphic of where and in what fields those vacancies are located. Overall, more than half of the state’s unfilled teacher positions are in Special Education and bilingual education. Regional differences can be seen as well, with downstate seeing vacancies in a broader range of subject areas than Chicago or the collar counties.

ISBE also provides some interactive information on all school vacancies, and the number of open positions for school support personnel is almost as high as that for teachers. These positions include jobs such as school nurses, guidance counselors, and school social workers.

There are various explanations for the shortage both here in Illinois and nationwide, including:

  • A declining number of high school graduates
  • Uncertainty regarding the state pension issue
  • Changes in the position, with teachers often having to take up more of a social worker role
  • Difficulties in obtaining a teaching license in Illinois

Since 1935, Illinois PTA has encouraged graduating seniors to go into teaching or other education-related fields (e.g., school nursing) through the Illinois PTA Scholarship Program. Over the years, this program has awarded more than $2.5 million in scholarships. The scholarship fund is supported by purchased awards and through direct donations. If you’re struggling to find a way to recognize your child’s teacher this holiday season, consider making a donation in their name to the Illinois PTA Scholarship Fund.

For graduating seniors planning to go into teaching or an education-related field, the 2017-2018 Illinois PTA Scholarship application is online. The deadline to apply is February 15, 2018.

13 Necessary Next Steps for Parents After an Autism Diagnosis

According to the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC), about 1 in 68 children has been identified as being autistic, with boys being approximately 4.5 times more likely to be diagnosed than girls. The latter detail is still being debated, as autism diagnosis criteria were developed primarily with data from boys, autism presents differently in girls, and girls may be better at masking their difficulties in order to fit in with their peers; all of which may mean that the occurrence of autism is even higher.

The increased diagnosis of autism means that many families are struggling to understand and come to terms with what this means for their child and their child’s future. The Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism published an article earlier this year on 13 next steps for parents after and autism diagnosis. They are:

  1. Give yourself time to adjust.
  2. Give the people around you time to adjust, and keep them in the loop.
  3. Give yourself time to process information critically.
  4. Give yourself time to learn which organizations and people to trust.
  5. Give yourself time to figure out what autism means for your child.
  6. Give yourself time to figure out what communication looks like for your child.
  7. Give yourself time to figure out which supports, schools, therapies, and environments will help your child succeed.
  8. Give yourself the space to be flexible about needs, and pick your battles.
  9. Give yourself time to find autistic role models for your child.
  10. Give yourself time to think about shared traits.
  11. Give your child space to grow and change.
  12. Give yourself time to figure out what your child really enjoys.
  13. Give yourself time to plan for your child’s future without you.

An autism diagnosis can be a relief that the challenges you and your child have been facing have an explanation. It can also bring worry and concern for your child’s future. Be sure to read the full article for details and resources linked to each of the above points. There is a growing community of autistic teenagers and adults online sharing their experiences and speaking up for others on the spectrum that can also help a family understand what an autism diagnosis means (see the #ActuallyAutistic hashtag on Twitter).