Transitioning Students with Disabilities into College and Careers

Scott Rich is a prime example of how a student with disabilities can be successful. Rich was diagnosed with autism at the age of three, and behavioral problems affected him throughout elementary school. He had difficulty engaging to the point that he was expelled on several occasions, and during middle and high school, he suffered anxiety and time management issues.

Graduation CapsToday, life for Rich is an entirely different story. At age 29, Rich has earned his M.A. in Special Education, a B.A. in Geography, and a Minor in Special Education. Rich now works as an outreach advocate and is mentoring students with special needs and autism.

“If it wasn’t for parental involvement, the IEP [Individualized Education Program], and IDEA [Individuals with Disabilities Education Act], it would have been very difficult to complete my education,” said Rich.

During a roundtable discussion as part of ED’s back-to-school bus tour, Sue Swenson, deputy assistant secretary for Special Education and Rehabilitative services, and Melody Musgrove, director of Special Education programs, joined Scott Rich and other advocates and parents of children with disabilities to collaborate on some of the challenges, success stories, and experiences of transitioning students with disabilities, from high school to post-secondary education. “Parents have to advocate for students until students can advocate for themselves,” said one parent.

Passionate parents at the summit voiced their opinions on the challenges students with disabilities face as they transition to college and careers, including:

  • The need for an IEP as soon as a child enters elementary school.
  • A lack of knowledge, information and resources about disabilities.
  • The need for better training for schools, districts and staff.
  • Better access to vocational skills and training for students.

Parents and advocates also shared things that are working, including:

  • The availability of resources and information for legal assistance and rights for students with disabilities, as well as workshops for training and employment assistance.
  • Well-documented IEPs.

The event also highlighted the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF) which runs a Parent Training and Information Center (PTI) that advocates for both parents and youth.  PTI’s serve families with disabilities from birth through age 21.  Through their training sessions, workshops and one-on-one assistance, they have been able to assist millions of parents and families. The program is funded in part by the Department of Education and more information on the PTI’s can be found at

Linda Pauley works in ED’s Office of Communication and Outreach in the Seattle regional office.

Teacher Makes a Personal Case for NCLB Waivers

I would like President Obama to meet one of my former students, Rashawn*.

Rashawn was a fifth grader, an African-American boy with an Individualized Education Program (IEP). In my classroom he received a bevy of services relating to his learning and academic disabilities, and yet he struggled mightily with reading and math.

Rashawn came from a tough section of the district and lived well below the poverty line in a broken home. He father was incarcerated. He had dreams of playing in the NBA. His smile set him apart, and he was a hard worker, a talker, and a thinker.

Rashawn entered my class in 2008, shortly before the nation elected Barack Obama to be president. He was far behind his peers academically, but he worked hard. Working as a team, a special educator and I provided Rashawn with rigorous instruction, and we set high expectations. We wanted him to succeed, and he wanted to succeed.  From the beginning of the year to the end, Rashawn made significant academic progress.

But none of that mattered, under the accountability measures of the No Child Left Behind Law (NCLB). Although he showed academic growth, Rashawn scored as “basic” on Maryland’s tests. According to the statisticians and policymakers, that was a disappointment. As his teacher, NCLB noted that I had failed Rashawn. When my results were printed, he would appear as nothing more than a name and an ID number awash in pink printer ink.

Rashawn is a perfect example of why teachers are crying out for NCLB to be overhauled. NCLB ushered in an era where we no longer ignore children on the periphery. Now, every student counts. That’s one thing NCLB got right.

Greg Mullenholz

Greg Mullenholz

Unfortunately, the NCLB accountability system fails students like Rashawn because it measures only one piece of data at one point in time. We need an accountability system that acknowledges growth and looks upon every student as an asset, not a deficit. We need our country to measure and reward the growth of our students, not just mark where they place on an arbitrary bar.

I would like President Obama to meet Rashawn. It seems that he had the Rashawns of the world in mind when he granted Secretary Duncan the authority to issue waivers for some areas of NCLB. The President still insists on a high bar for all children, but he gets it that what Rashawn has achieved transcends what is indicated by a single-measure on a poorly-designed bubble test.

I am thankful that with waivers, states won’t be given a pass on maintaining high expectations for all students, and they surely won’t be allowed to toss aside teacher accountability. Our students need schools with high expectations, and states will have to adopt college- and career-ready standards. But they will also be given the chance to innovate and design plans that meet the needs of their unique populations of students. And they will be allowed to use multiple measures of teaching effectiveness, so that teaching competence will no longer be boiled down to a solitary line of printer ink.

I haven’t seen Rashawn in a few years. I hope that he aspires to attend and complete college and to play basketball while he’s there. I dream about him earning a teaching degree and joining me as a colleague. Fixing NCLB would be one way to support all of the Rashawns in the classrooms throughout this great country. Something even better, I think, than meeting the President.

Greg Mullenholz

Greg Mullenholz is a Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow on loan from Rockville, Md. 

*My student’s name has been changed to protect his anonymity.