- Associated Press - Sunday, May 28, 2017

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - South Carolina students with disabilities will be able to graduate with an “employability credential” that showcases their abilities under a new law designed to personalize students’ path to success beyond high school.

Advocates have long pushed for an alternative diploma that recognizes the accomplishments of special needs children and helps them become independent.

Currently, students with disabilities who can’t earn the necessary 24 credits receive a state certificate of attendance - no matter what level they reach.

“It basically says you occupied a chair for 13 or 14 years,” said Mary Eaddy Baker, director of Parents Reaching Out to Parents, or PRO-Parents. “If you’ve got a high school diploma, that’s your ticket. … If you’ve got a certificate of attendance, it’s a ticket to nothing.”

About half of school districts statewide offer their own version of an occupational credential, but criteria vary widely.

“There’s no uniformity,” Eaddy Baker said. “We want to have something an employer would recognize.”

The law takes effect with students entering ninth grade in 2018-19, meaning the state credentials will start being awarded to the Class of 2022.

Credits could be earned through on-the-job training and career preparation courses on such “soft skills” as interviewing. Details are being developed by a group that includes officials from several state agencies, educators, businesses, and advocates.

“For our children who can’t get a diploma but are capable of being employed, this gives them credit for the good work they’ve done,” said Sen. Greg Hembree, R-North Myrtle Beach, the bill’s sponsor. “They can take pride in achieving this standard.”

Julie Fowler, deputy superintendent of education, stresses the credential is limited to a small segment of students with an “individualized education plan,” which is required for each of the roughly 100,000 special needs students in South Carolina public schools. An overwhelming majority of students with learning disabilities have average to above-average intelligence and should be working toward a diploma.

Eligibility will be determined by a team that includes the student and his or her parents. It’s for “students who have more moderate to severe disabilities,” she said.

Previous efforts to create an alternative diploma for special needs students died over concerns students would be incorrectly dumped into that track. The law requires the state Department of Education to closely monitor the number of students working toward the credential and report its findings twice a year, starting in 2020.

The limited option is part of a broader law intended to let students customize their path to a diploma.

Beginning with the class of 2022, diplomas can include “seals of distinction” to reflect their coursework.

For example, a “college ready” seal will signify the student took courses recommended for applying for college, and an “honors seal” will reflect a required level of advanced courses and GPA. Specialized seals will be available for students who chose a career “major,” which they can do starting in their sophomore year, and take the courses needed to complete it. Other possibilities include seals for the military, arts and world languages.

Students’ diplomas could include multiple stickers - or none.

“We’re still requiring 24 credits. It’s not that it’s an easier pathway or less rigorous, just that it’s aligned to their goals,” Fowler said. “We should see more students graduate with a diploma that’s meaningful.”

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