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.

Leaders@ED: Alexa Posny, Assistant Secretary for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services

Alexa Posny has had 23 jobs. While she never envisioned a specific career path, every position she held was a stepping stone towards her current position as the Assistant Secretary for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) at the U.S. Department of Education, an appointment that allows Posny to draw from all her experiences in education to improve the lives of infants, toddlers, children, youth and adults with disabilities.

As an undergraduate student at the University of Wisconsin, Posny double majored in psychology and sociology. Yet she took 15 credits of education in her senior year, knowing that education “was what she ultimately wanted to do.”

Alexa Posny with a group of Special Olympics athletes

Assistant Secretary Alexa Posny at the 2011 Special Olympics

Coinciding with Posny’s college graduation and her decision to begin a master’s degree in behavioral disabilities, Congress started considering the Education for All Handicapped Children Act.  A year later, in 1975, Congress passed Public Law 94-142, the Federal law providing students with disabilities a right to a free appropriate public education, otherwise known as FAPE. At the time, public schools accommodated only one in five children with disabilities, and many states explicitly excluded children who were deaf, blind, emotionally disturbed or intellectually disabled.

Posny would go on to teach students who were emotionally disturbed in middle and high schools and students with learning disabilities at the elementary level. She incorporated both academic and behavioral interventions in her teaching. She also visited the homes of all her students to make sure their total needs were being met and to establish a relationship with their parents.

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Teachers@ED: Vanessa Tesoriero, Small Business Innovation Research Program Specialist

Vanessa Tesoriero lost her hearing at age 17, which was all the more challenging due to a great love of music. “I grew up playing the piano, flute, guitar, and singing,” Tesoriero said in an interview for the Homeroom Blog. “Music was a huge part of my life.” But instead of giving up her favorite activities, this obstacle was surmounted with a fierce determination and desire to help others in the Deaf community and beyond.

Teachers@ED LogoTesoriero decided to turn her frustration into inspiration. The motivation behind Tesoriero’s teaching stemmed from wanting a deeper understanding of her own disability.  Driven to find the answers, in college, she learned sign language and studied audiology, speech pathology, and linguistics.  She soon grew to love teaching others, which eventually led her to become a teacher and later brought her to Department of Education in the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services.

She attended Columbia University’s Teachers College, studying Deaf Education. Upon graduating she went on to teach at a state school for the deaf in Brooklyn, later moving to the New York City Public School system to teach at the city’s only public school for the deaf.

“I always wanted to share music with my students – even though some skeptics would ask why I would want to teach music to deaf children. It seemed almost ironic, but my students love dance, vibration, and music. Everyone loves music!”

Vanessa Tesoriero

Vanessa Tesoriero

While teaching, Tesoriero directed the school musical, “Free to Be You and Me”, striking a chord with both the hearing and deaf students of the school, as it “brought the whole community together” with a compilation of songs, poetry, skits and dance. Based on the book by Marlo Thomas and Friends, the essence of the play focused upon promoting individuality and comfort with your identity.

“It was a showcase of everyone’s talents, and the students loved it. I played the piano while the children sang, signed and danced. It gave these children a sense of confidence that some weren’t necessarily experiencing in the classroom academically. It really opened up opportunities for kids to shine in other ways.”

Inside Tesoriero’s classroom, learning exercises accompanied the similar theme of inclusion and promotion of self-identity. Using “open-ended” approaches, she allowed the students to be creative and approach problems differently.

“I wanted to open their minds to the value of differences, promote respect, tolerance, and cooperation in showing them that being different can be a good thing.”

Tesoriero’s experience in the classroom continues to play an important role in her job at the Department of Education. After her recent completion of the Administration Program for Special Education Leaders at Johns Hopkins University, Tesoriero now finds herself at ED as the Small Business Innovation Research Program Specialist at the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research.

She oversees grantees who are researching and developing cutting-edge technologies and products that focus on helping people with disabilities. With views as a consumer, advocate, and educator, Tesoriero is excited to be part of the process, as she understands just how important these kinds of developments are.

Catherine Tracy

Catherine Tracy is a student at Stonehill College and a recent intern in the Office of Communications and Outreach

Ed. Note: This post is one in a series of blog posts that highlights teachers at the Department of Education who offer invaluable expertise and continue their commitment to education, the teaching profession and students.

Inclusive Culture Leads to Gains at Diverse Maryland School

Arne Duncan speaking to a Wilde Lake student

Secretary Duncan and Asst. Secretary Posny met a cross-section of the Wilde Lake High School community. (Official Department of Education Photo by Leslie Williams)

I had the opportunity on Tuesday to join Secretary Duncan and Alexa Posny, assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services, on a visit to Wilde Lake High School in Columbia, Md. During the visit, Duncan and Posny observed classrooms and joined in a discussion with students, parents and community members about the importance of inclusion and closing the achievement gap for students with disabilities. The discussion was facilitated by Patty Daley, director of special education from the Howard County Public School System (HCPSS) and James LeMon, principal at Wilde Lake.

During the discussion, Duncan and Posny probed students with a variety of questions aimed at drilling down to the reasons why students at the high school have been so successful, with a particular focus on the tremendous gains that Wilde Lake has made in the achievement measures of its special education students. Arne observed the faculty there is “absolutely committed to making sure that every student fulfills their academic and social potential.” When Alexa asked the students on the panel what makes special education students so successful at Wilde Lake, one student shared that the cultural stigma of being a special ed student had been eliminated and declared that it had been taken over by the notion that, “I am a student!” We know that Wilde Lake takes this belief very seriously, as more than 90 percent of their students spend more than 80 percent of the school day in a general education setting.

Through the discussion, we learned that the staff at Wilde Lake, led by Principal LeMon and supported by Patty Daley, has taken extraordinary measures to establish and promote a culture of acceptance and individualized instruction within their school programming. They have taken purposeful steps to engage families in a meaningful way, even including them as stakeholders in professional development activities. The school community has a strong belief that each individual is a stakeholder. They routinely analyze student data, make instructional decisions based upon this data, and identify targeted interventions aimed both at supporting students who are falling behind and enriching those who need an extra push. They use research-based instructional practices to maximize the learning for all of their students, citing the use of Classroom Focused Instructional Protocols (CFIP) as one example. This targeted, “laser” focus of both Wilde Lake and HCPSS, led by the district’s superintendent, Dr. Sydney Cousin, has enabled an effective mainstreaming environment for all students with disabilities, recognizing that they can and should succeed. They have developed an expectation that all students are self-advocates.

One teacher of sociology noted that the school community had taken calculated steps to get students to understand the uniqueness of learning. Once students understand that learning is not a standardized path that they each take, they are able to understand that they are all learners, and that they are all capable of achieving at high levels. Student after student, and parent after parent spoke about the community and culture as the driving force behind student success. One parent noted that her son, a student with autism, had become so successful due to the years of teachers “letting him do.” The staff here did not simply “tilt their heads” and smile at Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings, but instead worked hard to develop a rigorous academic and social program for her son.

Alexa noted in her opening remarks that, “There is a greater tragedy than being labeled as a slow learner, and that is being treated like one.” Students with disabilities at Wilde Lake are not treated like slow learners, but are treated as equal partners in education with the same expectations for success as their peers. Truly, the mantra “I am a student!” is a pervasive part of the culture, and in that regard Wilde Lake should be a model for all schools across the country.

Greg Mullenholz attended the event as a Teaching Ambassador Fellow with the U.S. Department of Education.

A Mother’s Story on How Early Intervention Services Helped Her Son

Ed. Note: October 8, marks the 25th anniversary of President Reagan’s signing of the “Education for All Handicapped Children Act” (EAHCA) Amendments, which included for the first time, mandating services to infants and toddlers with disabilities and their families. To build upon the services established in the EAHCA, last month, Secretary Duncan, and Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services Assistant Secretary Alexa Posny announced the release of new regulations that will help improve services and outcomes for America’s infants and toddlers with disabilities and their families. Below, a mother reflects on her experience and the important role that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Early Intervention Program for Infant and Toddlers with Disabilities provided her child and family.

Special education has been part of my world for as long as I can remember; some may say I was born into it.  I am the child of two special education teachers, and I worked for more than 17 years in the field. All of these experiences never prepared me for the day my own son was diagnosed with autism.

I knew Ethan was different at 19 months old but friends and family told me that all children develop differently. They suggested that I was looking for something to be wrong.  I was hoping they were right! 

Ethan loved to jump, at first it was precious, we called him our little bunny. But then he started missing developmental milestones. The tickle and play you would expect from a young child was replaced by a constant need to jump and flap, an aversion to noise and a fascination with things that spin.  With great trepidation, I called Virginia’s early intervention services office for an evaluation. 

The staff was phenomenal. Under the Part C IDEA program, the evaluators, coordinator and service providers worked with me to identify Ethan’s needs, ensure he received the needed services and ultimately to communicate those needs to the school district. His growth was magnificent and I started to feel hopeful again. The Part C program was one of the very first steps I would make in my journey into services for my child, and those steps have forever changed our lives.

Today Ethan is 7 years old and in 2nd grade and now gets services under Part B of the IDEA. While he still has a long way to go, he has an amazing sense of humor and communicates not only his needs and feelings but has learned to joke. Ethan, who was once seemingly without the need for company, is learning to develop friendships and loves to play games with his peers. Everyone who knows him and has worked with him comments on how far he’s come.  Our family is stronger because Ethan’s education is built on the roots established through the Part C early intervention services he received. 

Ellen Safranek is the proud mother of Ethan, and currently works at the U.S. Department of Education in the Office of the Chief Financial Officer. Prior to this position, she worked for 17 years in the Office of Special Education Programs. 

Discussing Special Education Teacher Prep at Eastern Michigan

Last Friday, I had a great opportunity to participate in a roundtable at Eastern Michigan University (EMU) on special education teacher preparation, recruitment and retention. With six other distinguished panelists that included a state and district representative, an EMU faculty member, a current EMU teacher candidate, a parent and a local teacher representative, we all agreed that integrating some of the preparation of general and special educators was of paramount importance.

For two hours, we shared data on current recruitment and retention rates and best practices for long-term retention.  One of these practices included the need for a strong induction and mentoring program. Michigan currently has a mandatory three-year mentoring program, 15 additional days of professional development, and regional seminars that allow them to hear from and connect to master teachers as they begin their teaching careers. What a great exemplar!

We also discussed the steps EMU is taking to make teacher preparation more successful and how important it is to align university training with what teachers are expected to do in their classrooms. Traditionally, general education and special education teachers have been trained separately, yet as we continue to move towards more inclusive settings, EMU will collaborate to ensure that programs are working together and general and special education are no longer “housed” in separate silos.

During and following the roundtable, I had a chance to chat with some of the over 250 attendees. Some of the topics of interest to audience members included the economic implications of inclusive practices and the need for financial incentives for teachers, especially as we work to increase the number of youth who choose to become special educators.  As I mingled through the crowd, I was excited to meet so many teacher candidates who participated in this event. I want to extend a special thanks to those who participated and remind all of you that investing in education is investing in our future!

Alexa Posny is Assistant Secretary for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services at the U.S. Department of Education.