Kim Dodson is frustrated by what she’s seen happen too many times: families of children with special needs are shocked on graduation day to learn their kids didn’t actually earn diplomas.

With just a “certificate of completion” instead, she said, they often are shut out of jobs.

“Job opportunities aren’t available to them because they can’t say they graduated from high school and earned a diploma,” said Dodson, associate executive director of The Arc of Indiana, a local nonprofit that advocates for people with disabilities. “As soon as they were asked by potential employers, or even on an application, and they had to check ‘no,’ they were kicked out of the system.”

A certificate of completion is not an academic credential that certifies students have completed a specific program of classes, like a diploma. It simply says a student has attended school and completed the goals on his or her Individualized Education Program, which could include life skills and social skills in addition to, or instead of, academic subjects.

Only about 1 percent of Indiana students receive certificates of completion. Typically, they are granted to students with severe cognitive disabilities.

Some of the students Dodson has worked with, who make up a small percentage of the state’s graduates, have challenges that might keep them from being able to earn a Core 40 diploma, the type of diploma most students who want to go on to college or professional fields are expected to complete.

Those kids have another option — a general diploma, which would be suitable if they are looking for more basic jobs and don’t intend to go to a four-year college. But Indiana actively discourages most kids from seeking the general diploma, which requires a pared-down course load.

The Core 40 and general diplomas both require 40 credits in English, math, science, social studies, physical education, health and elective courses. The key difference is Core 40 requires more courses in higher levels of math, science and social studies.

But there’s an additional catch for the small number of kids who might be better suited to the general diploma: Indiana law does not require every district to offer it.

Students who want that option but go to schools that don’t offer it can be stuck — they end up with a certificate, not a diploma. They are left unqualified for the jobs that might best fit them and are unable to show they’ve achieved a measure of academic success..

“They go to school for 13 years, and they do make education goals they set for themselves,” Dodson said. “They deserve more than a pat on the back.”

New legislation seeks to improve communication

Indiana legislators this year passed House Bill 1194, which requires schools to inform families of students with special needs of all the state’s diploma options — not just the ones the school itself might offer.

But the bill didn’t include any fix for the loophole that allows schools to simply not offer one of Indiana’s four diploma types.

Pam Wright, the state’s director of special education services, thinks all schools should have to offer a general diploma, or something similar.

“I don’t believe it solves the problem that people are raising about the lack of diploma options in schools,” she said.

Tara Rinehart, the director of special education services in Wayne Township, said she and her staff begin discussing diploma options with families early so there won’t be unpleasant surprises on graduation day.

“All the way starting in preschool we start informing parents about the multiple pathways for students, really talking about that end goal, high school diploma,” Rinehart said. “We want there to be a transparent message that kids really do need different pathways, different options that are going to set them up for success later on.”

Rep. Ed Clere, R-New Albany, who authored the diploma bill, said it should make those conversations more common across the state.

The law requires that during required annual meetings between students with special needs, their parents and school staff, all diploma options need to be presented. Then, the diploma choice must be noted in the student’s education plan, and teachers must follow up with parents about their child’s progress toward it at least once during each grading period.”

“Most education policy focuses on the many but this law targets the few who really need to understand their options, Clere said. “It has the potential to change profoundly the lives of those who benefit from it.”

Should all kids have all diploma options?

A simple fix that would help the kids Dodson works with — requiring every district make every diploma option available to its students — hasn’t gained much traction.

Why?

Indiana lawmakers tend to prefer to leave as much decision making as possible to local officials, Wright and Dodson said. So that might be part of the explanation.

Misconceptions about the state’s accountability system could also play a role, they said.

Under a proposal to change Indiana’s A-to-F school grading system last year, schools would have been penalized when their students earned general diplomas. But that idea was never acted upon.

The state board removed that provision from the rules last August, state board spokesman Marc Lotter said. In the new letter grade system the state is working on for 2015-16, diploma type doesn’t factor into school grades at all, he said.

Critics of the general diploma say it’s not rigorous enough for students who want to go on to higher education or the workforce. Currently, all Indiana public, four-year universities require at least a Core 40 diploma.

In fact, students need explicit permission under state law from their parents and school staff to opt-out of a Core 40 diploma, but most don’t ever take that step. In 2014, just 14 percent of students graduated with a general diploma.

Even so, Dodson said the general diploma can still be a viable option for some students. Something needs to be done so those kids leave school with a way to move forward in their lives, especially into jobs.

It shouldn’t just be up to the schools to decide what diploma is right for them, she said.
“We have a lot of schools who don’t provide the option for the general diploma,” Dodson said. “But I guess I don’t believe in local control to the extent where it takes away someone’s right to a bright future.”

REQUIREMENTS FOR INDIANA’S CORE 40 AND GENERAL DIPLOMAS

Click below to see what’s needed to complete the state’s major courses of study.

Core 40 Diploma

  • English: 8 credits, including literature, composition and speech
  • Math: 6 credits, including Algebra I, Geometry and Algebra II
  • Science: 6 credits, including Biology, Chemistry and Physics
  • Social Studies: 6 credits, including U.S. History, U.S. Government, Economics and World History
  • Directed Electives: 5 credits in either a world language, find arts or career and technical education
  • Health and Wellness: 3 credits
  • Electives: 6 credits

Total: 40 credits

General Diploma

  • English: 8 credits, including literature, composition and speech
  • Math: 4 credits, including Algebra I or integrated math courses
  • Science: 4 credits, including Biology, Physical Science or Earth and Space Science
  • Social Studies: 4 credits, including U.S. History and U.S. Government
  • Health and Wellness: 3 credits
  • College and Career Pathway courses: 6 credits
  • Flex: 5 credits including ones involving workplace learning, dual credit or other academic subjects
  • Electives: 6 credits

Total: 40 credits