Lee parents aim to help special needs children gain diplomas

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LEE — Kelly Koperek has been pushing the state for years to help children with special needs get a shot at a fair education.

Now she wants other parents to take a page from her playbook — and sign it.

The Lee resident recently launched a petition, via her personal Facebook page, asking the state to change the graduation requirements to give students with disabilities a fairer shot at earning a high school diploma, versus what is known as a certificate of attainment.

She also is hand-circulating the petition to other county parents.

While Koperek is a member of the Lee School Committee, she tells The Eagle that this effort is completely separate from her work with that group.

"I'm 100 percent doing this as a mom," said Koperek, who has a son with Down syndrome.

The petition calls for the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the state Legislature's Joint Committee on Education — the legislative branch to consider all education matters through Grade 12 — to "end discrimination against high school students with disabilities and resume issuance of high school diplomas to high school students with disabilities who achieve the goals established in their IEPs (individualized education programs) by their special education teams."

For the past five years, Koperek and her husband, Paul, have been actively pushing for the change, but to no avail. The most they've gotten has been a few written replies, along with several stacks of paperwork to complete in order to file grievances.

"It breaks my heart that more and more kids graduate each year with a certificate of attendance," Koperek said.

But with the initial sharing of the petition, she's starting to get the response that she's been hoping for all along — other parents and citizens lending their awareness and support to the call for change.

"I've heard from people in Berkshire County, and I've heard from a parent in Chicopee and now Springfield," Koperek said, noting she's been moved by the response. "I've been crying to say the least, but they're happy tears. For once, we feel like we're not alone in this anymore. ... I've got people asking me who their legislators are."

She said many parents have no idea about the state law and difference in graduation credentials until their children get to high school.

The Kopereks have two sons, Sean, 13, and Michael, 15, who has just begun his freshman year at Lee High School. Michael has Down syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes intellectual and developmental delays from childhood on; Sean has no such diagnosis.

While both boys have been able to progress through their grades, Michael's capacity to reach a broad range of academic achievement — including the performance demands of the exams of high-stakes testing — is significantly diminished compared to his brother and other peers.

Starting next year, Michael and his classmates will be asked to take the 10th-grade Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, or MCAS, exams, which serve as the state's bar for determining which students are competent enough in their mathematics, English Language Arts, and science and technology/engineering skills and knowledge to receive a high school diploma.

While Michael has been able to meet personal goals of his IEP, he likely will not come close to clearing that bar for high school graduation.

The bar, known as "Competency Determination," has only been in effect since 2003, a result of education reform movements under the MCAS and state standards agenda. Prior to MCAS, students with special needs were able to walk across a stage their senior year and receive a high school diploma, as long as their attendance was good and they were doing adequate, albeit not standardized work.

When the MCAS was created and implemented, state officials decided that the rigorous set of exams would be a proficient method to comprehensively evaluate the depth and breadth of a student's knowledge and understanding developed during their academic career. Thus, passing the Grade 10 MCAS exams was adopted as a graduation requirement, in addition to satisfying the local school's requirements for attendance, credits, course variety and participation.

If a student achieves the latter, but does not pass the exams, he or she may be eligible to be given multiple attempts to pass the standard MCAS exams; pass the exams with some accommodations, like extra time or tools; or pass the MCAS Alternate Assessment (MCAS-Alt), a portfolio of specific subject materials collected annually by the teacher and student. Massachusetts is one of the few states that offers an alternative test to its general standardized exams.

If the student's MCAS-Alt portfolio doesn't pass a team review, a family can fill out the six-page application and obtain the necessary documentation and testimonies to go through the MCAS Performance Appeals process. The appeals process requires that for math and English language arts, the student has attempted to pass the standard MCAS at least three times or the MCAS-Alt twice; an appeal can be filed for the science-related exams after failing the first attempt.

Kids who meet their school's requirements but who ultimately do not pass the MCAS or win their appeal can receive a "Certificate of Attainment," which does not bear the same influence as a high school diploma. Elsewhere referred to as a "certificate of attendance" or "certificate of achievement," the state's certificate of attainment is essentially a courtesy credential, which says that a student has not outrightly failed 12 years of grade school; they just couldn't meet the state's expectations based on one set of 10th-grade exams.

Several bills over the years have been introduced by Massachusetts House legislators seeking to change the laws to be more equitable in supporting students with disabilities, language barriers or other issues in passing the MCAS to graduate. Koperek herself testified regarding one such bill introduced in 2011. But the bills have all come to a standstill in the State House, with few legislators further pushing the cause.

In a letter to the Kopereks dated June 13, 2011, the commonwealth's current education commissioner, Mitchell D. Chester, indicated that giving students multiple re-testing opportunities and a portfolio-based alternative should be sufficient in giving students time to meet the competency determination requirements.

"The solution is not to water down the state's graduation requirement, but rather to intensify the provision of instruction and support to students who need them, which is why I do not support the legislation to which you referred," he wrote.

Yet the Kopereks, other families and education system critics still believe this is discriminatory to students with special needs. After all, a high school diploma bears the same weight, whether the holder got straight A's or D's and C's, so long as they all passed the state tests before graduation day.

Within the petition, signers — who must be registered voters — say that they believe the discriminatory effect of the competency determination not only disproportionately discriminates against students with disabilities by singling them out and separating them from their peers, but that the denial of a high school diploma "seriously limits such students' future career and higher educational opportunities," since a diploma is required by many employers and colleges.

Even Berkshire Community College, the county's most accessible institution of advanced learning and higher education, requires a high school diploma or equivalent to be eligible to enroll in a degree program, though anyone can enroll in a class for which they meet prerequisites.

While some fast-food restaurants and other employers evaluate employability on a case-by-case basis, most job applications require at minimum a high school diploma or equivalent for employment.

The Kopereks have maintained some correspondence with Commissioner Chester since 2011, and have been encouraged by him to work with Michael's IEP team to educate him in the best ways possible and to prepare to go through the MCAS Performance Appeals process, if necessary, as their son approaches graduation age.

On July 27, Kelly Koperek traveled to Springfield to file a grievance with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, regarding the state education law.

She told The Eagle that while she respects the state's efforts to improve instruction and resources for kids like Michael, she knows that some kids can only learn so much. She enclosed some of her son's work in a recent letter to Chester, noting that his capabilities are equivalent to a first- or second-grade performance level.

"As much as we love Michael and work with him (and the school does tremendous work with him as well), he will never be on a 10th grade level with his peers!" she wrote in the letter dated May 18, 2016. "We are not trying to get our hopes up for something that is not there ... Michael's work that is included with this letter is far from 'watered down!' Michael has given his ALL, and he deserves to receive a high school diploma as his peers do."

In an open letter to families, students and educators on the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education's website, Chester writes, "I appreciate your efforts on behalf of all students who have yet to meet the high school standards."

And he acknowledged that the Kopereks are among hundreds of families and school teams crusading each year for students who are struggling to secure that coveted credential.

The number of students in Grades 3–10 who participated in alternate assessments in at least one content area was 8,650, or 1.7 percent of the total tested population. The percentage of students with disabilities who participated in MCAS-Alt was 8.9 percent, which is unchanged from 2014. But only 12 students that year met the Competency Determination requirement for the MCAS-Alt subject they tested in, according to state data.

Chester writes, "Earning a high school diploma is critical for success, and I am committed to ensuring that all high school students are given multiple opportunities to meet the state's graduation requirements. Although the vast majority of Massachusetts high school graduates have met the state standard by earning the required scores on the high school MCAS tests or retests, more than 7,000 students since 2003 have earned a CD through the MCAS Performance Appeals process."

Contact Jenn Smith at 413-496-6239.

To learn more ...

• Kelly Koperek will be seeking registered Massachusetts voters to sign her petition during Founders Day Weekend in Lee. She will be stationed at an information table outside Kelly Funeral Home, 3 Main St., Lee. Koperek can also be reached via email at kelly.koperek@gmail.com.

• To learn more about the MCAS Performance Appeals process, visit doe.mass.edu/mcasappeals/faq.html.

• Find members of the Massachusetts Joint Committee on Education at malegislature.gov/Committees/Joint/J14.

• To reach members of the Berkshire County legislative delegation, visit malegislature.gov/People/Search, and enter your city, town or ZIP code.


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