An open door

The state opened doors for students with disabilities when it decided to recognize those earning modified diplomas as graduates — not just completers — who are now eligible for federal financial aid.

“It’s really big news,” said Ashland High School Principal Michelle Zundel, who attended sessions in Salem on the subject.

“It opens up all kinds of opportunities for students with disabilities who can now pursue a post-secondary education,” she said.

Modified diplomas are designed for any student who has a documented history of an inability to maintain grade-level achievement because of an impairment, said Tania Tong, Medford’s supervisor of student services.

Between 2009 and 2013, 51 students in the Medford School District earned a modified diploma. However, these students were not calculated into the district’s graduation rate because the state did not consider the modified diploma equivalent to the standard diploma.

Until 2012, some students with modified diplomas could apply for federal financial assistance, thanks to the “ability to benefit” clause in Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965. But the clause was removed in 2012, leaving only those with a standard diploma with access to federal financial aid.

“There were a lot of letters written to (U.S. Sen. Jeff) Merkley, so he decided this was something that was important for him to tackle,” said Sally Simich, a secondary transitions specialist with the Oregon Department of Education. “He and Rep. Sara Gelser brought it up in Washington, D.C., and that’s what started this conversation.”

Last spring, the U.S. Department of Education clarified its eligibility requirements, saying that if the state determined the modified diploma to be “significantly similar” to a regular high school diploma, then it would meet the criteria for federal financial aid, said ODE spokeswoman Crystal Greene.

“Based on our further review of their ‘significantly similar’ criteria, as well as the requirements for a modified diploma and a regular high school diploma, which are significantly similar, we made that determination,” Greene said.

In 2013, 31,440 students statewide graduated with a standard diploma. Another 767 received a modified diploma, Greene said.

Based on those numbers, the state expects about a 2 percent bump in the graduation rate, she added.

“Many students weren’t able to pursue a college education because they didn’t have the ability to apply for federal financial aid,” said Tiffanie Lambert, Eagle Point’s director of special services. “This is life-changing for them. And to be able to apply for student financial aid, that’s huge.”

Students earning a modified diploma must complete the same number of high school credits as those earning a regular diploma. However, a student on track for a modified diploma is allowed to take fewer core academic classes and more elective classes geared toward building life skills, explained Celine Buczek, a transition specialist at Crater High School.

A special education case manager and an Individualized Education Program team determine whether a student with physical, cognitive or educational disability or a mental health condition should be allowed certain modifications in a few or all of his or her classes, Buczek said.

For example, that student may be assigned 75 percent of an algebra assignment or a two-page rather than a three-page writing assignment, Buczek said.

Their state assessments also may be scored differently from their classmates, she added.

If students take a class with modifications, they don’t receive a letter grade. Instead, they either pass or don’t pass. If they’ve earned a modified diploma and decide they’d like a standard diploma, they can retake those classes for a letter grade.

Earlier this year, 15 Central Point students graduated with a modified diploma, said Brock Rowley, the district’s director of special programs.

Ariel Rogers, 16, a junior at Crater Renaissance Academy with Down syndrome, is on track to graduate in 2016 with a modified diploma.

Currently, she’s taking English, photojournalism, marine science, world culture and choir, said her mom, Joyce Rogers, executive director of the Down Syndrome Association of Southern Oregon.

Jeff Zundel, who teaches Ariel’s English, world studies and photography class, said her assignments are modified in that they are individualized or scored on a different scale than her classmates.

Nonetheless, Ariel participates in all the class activities, he said Thursday as she worked diligently in a small group on a world studies handout.

Ariel aspires to be a preschool teacher and would like to attend Rogue Community College to get a preschool certificate, said Rogers.

“If my daughter chooses to get a one-year certificate, she probably won’t need federal financial aid, but if she chooses to go on, that might be something we would explore,” Rogers said.

Either way, Rogers was thrilled with the changes around modified diplomas.

“I think it’s fabulous,” she said. “I think all children should be afforded the same opportunities regardless of their abilities.”