Congratulations to all our region’s recent and upcoming graduates – high school, college or otherwise! It’s one of the major transitions that happens in our lives, though why we’ve chosen to mark it with the ugliest piece of millinery known to humankind is beyond me.
Unflattering hats aside, graduation from high school hasn’t always been an expectation for all youths, and it still isn’t a given for many groups of students. Children with disabilities weren’t even afforded the entitlement of a public education until 1975. It’s been an uphill battle for equitable education ever since, although a battle that is beginning to be won.
In the new millennium, students with disabilities are graduating at higher rates than ever. According to the latest Department of Education report released in January for the 2016-17 school year, students with disabilities graduated at a rate of 67.1%. This is up from 65.5% the year before and fits with a trend that has seen positive growth in the graduation rate for students with disabilities for the past six years of reporting.
While it is reassuring to see this success, the disparity between the graduation rates for students with and without disabilities continues to be staggering. The increase to 67.1% comes within the context of an overall graduation rate increase to 84.6%. Almost 20% fewer students with disabilities are graduating from high school than their non-disabled peers.
The data from Colorado is even more depressing. For the 2016-2017 school year, 79.1% of Colorado teens graduated from high school. Unless they had disabilities. Then they had only a 56.8% chance of graduating. Just over half of students with disabilities in the affluent and highly educated state of Colorado graduated in 2017.
To be fair, that rate is skewed by the fact that some students with disabilities take more than four years to graduate. Others are given a “Certificate of Completion,” a mostly useless piece of paper that reflects that the student participated in school without meeting the academic requirements.
The impacts of not graduating from high school have far-reaching consequences. High school dropouts have consistently higher unemployment rates than those who have a high school diploma or GED, and the available work tends to have lower wages. It shouldn’t be surprising then that unemployment rates for people with disabilities are more than twice the unemployment rate for people without disabilities because people with disabilities are also less likely to have that diploma.
Unfortunately, I will not be ending this column with an earth-shattering solution. If I could solve the problems of the American education system, believe me, I would. But I’m not an educator or a self-proclaimed expert in education. I am simply a champion for social justice, particularly justice and equity for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
We should take note of these discrepancies when they arise. We should observe and ask, “why?” Even when we don’t have the answers, the simple act of asking “why” opens the discussion and sheds light on the problem. Together, I have faith we’ll figure it out.
Tara Kiene is president/CEO of Community Connections Inc.