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For Arizona special education students, graduating high school isn’t always a good thing

High school graduation is an exciting time. But for special education students and their families, it can be complicated.

Some Arizona families and advocates say schools are pushing students out before they’re ready. Now, in response to reporting from KJZZ's The Show, a bill to address that has been introduced in the Arizona Legislature.

Piper Palmer is a senior at Chaparral High School in Scottsdale. But she won’t be graduating this year. Palmer, who is 20 and has cerebral palsy, can walk with assistance and make a joke with her communication device. If handed a spoon, she can scoop yogurt from a cup into her mouth. She is just now learning to engage with peers — to play a simple game or ask to hold someone’s hand. As a special education student, by law she can remain in school until her 22nd birthday. 

And so her mother Jennifer was surprised when school personnel informed the family last year that Piper had enough credits to graduate. 

Suddenly, Piper had gone from taking “functional math” to Algebra 2. 

“Last year, right before I found out that she was going to move on to graduate, I started getting, 'Oh, she's solving long division problems, and she's solving two digit by two digit multiplication.' I'm questioning them going, 'How is that possible? When she still can't even count with me?’”

Valley students face 'forced graduation'

Turns out, if you earn enough credits any time before your 22nd birthday, the school can graduate you. It also turns out that Arizona offers an incentive for schools that graduate special education students in four years.

Disability rights advocates call it “forced graduation” and it’s not just happening in the Scottsdale Unified School District. In schools across the Valley, families are reportedly caught off guard each spring, told that their students are about to graduate. KJZZ's The Show interviewed a second family at Chaparral High as well as several families in the Tempe Unified High School District. 

Last June, KJZZ's The Show first reported that a North High student with Down syndrome would have been forced to graduate if a family friend with political connections hadn’t intervened. At the time, a Phoenix Union High School District spokesman said his district does not force students out. 

George Diaz, a longtime player in Arizona politics, was happy to make things right for his friend. Now he and others want to fix the system for students in similar situations. 

'No parent should be surprised'

This week, Republican Sen. Ken Bennett introduced legislation at the behest of Karla Phillips-Krivickas, the CEO and founder of Inclusive Strategies, a public affairs firm that advocates for students with disabilities. Phillips-Krivickas has a daughter with Down syndrome who attends a public high school in Phoenix. 

“We call this bill the No Surprises Act 'cause the consistent theme, starting with your article of course, was these parents are caught off guard. And for better or worse, these parents assume that their kids are gonna stay till they're 21. So they're totally surprised. And my theory is that no parent should be surprised senior year to find out that their kid is or is not graduating for that matter.”

Phillips-Krivickas was taken aback by how many students she found in this situation. 

“I talked to one mom about this forced graduation issue out in the West Valley, and I was terrified 'cause as she was telling me her story, it was clear to me that this was happening in real time. Like, it's this year.”

The problem is so prevalent that the Arizona Center for Disability Law sent out a warning to families about forced graduation. 

Because school administrators won’t admit it’s happening, it’s difficult to know exactly why students in special education are being pushed through the system. It could be because of staff shortages and funding shortfalls. Another reason: The state issues letter grades to public schools each year. One of the criteria is graduation rates. Schools receive credit for graduating students in four years. This includes special education students — even though those students are legally allowed to remain in school for years past that. 

"Schools should not be penalized for designing programs for kids with disabilities who are allowed to stay longer. So we're hoping to address that this year for sure." — Karla Phillips-Krivickas, CEO and founder of Inclusive Strategies

“Schools should not be penalized for designing programs for kids with disabilities who are allowed to stay longer. So we're hoping to address that this year for sure," said Phillips-Krivickas.

Administrators deny problem

School administrators acknowledge that budgets are tight but one insists that no one is being caught off guard. 

Brooke Williams is the director of special education for the Scottsdale Unified School District.

“We don't shock them, right? The parents are part of that conversation every year, and we talk about, what math skills are they working on? What math credits are they working on? What are the graduation requirements? What does that look like? So school teams have been talking about that. I can't imagine a scenario where a family would just be told, surprise, your student’s graduating," said Williams.

Liz Coker disagrees. Her son Zane is 17. He has Down syndrome and autism, and attends Chaparral High School like Piper Palmer. Coker says she was caught off guard when school officials suddenly announced Zane was ready to graduate. 

“I said, 'So are you saying that he's gonna graduate? That he's fulfilled his high school requirements because of time, the passage of time?' I said, 'Because he hasn't met the goals. He hasn't had the classes and he doesn't have the credits. No. Not even close.'”

Options lacking after graduation

Families worry about what’s next for their students when they graduate. The No Surprises Act also addresses issues around the transition from high school to the real world, requiring that planning begins early and lays out a foundation for the student’s future. 

Scottsdale’s Brooke Williams says her district has made great strides in providing better transition options, including a program at Scottsdale Community College. She acknowledges that none of this is easy. 

“I think that there's so many factors that play here. There are districts that are trying to do right by families and kids. There are families that are worried about their students and what next steps look like after high school," said Williams. "I think there are community pieces at play. So what options do we have for our students after they leave the public education setting, whether it's in four years or five years or six years?”

Not nearly enough options, parents say. 

Jennifer Palmer, Piper’s mom, has experience as a special education teacher and administrator. She successfully argued to extend Piper’s time at Chaparral. But she’s still worried about her daughter’s future. Jennifer Palmer has started trying to find an adult day program for Piper when she does eventually leave high school. There’s not much out there, she says. 

“You look at these places and I'm so thankful that they have them, but people stay there until they die, which is wonderful for those families. But there's hardly any openings. And if there is an opening, do I really want my 19-year-old with 55-year-old men in wheelchairs? No. So there's nothing in between.”

School, Jennifer Palmer says, is the only place Piper can be with her peers, keep learning and continue to grow.

More stories from KJZZ

Amy Silverman is a journalist, author and teacher based in her hometown, Phoenix.