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From cradle to career: The scope of special education today

Student working on a puzzle in the classroom.

Teacher and student having fun while learning.

Student and teacher work together building a Mr. Potato Head.

Students and staff learning new skills in the classroom.

It takes an army.
Intermediate school district administrators, educators and parents all play a role in order to provide students with disabilities the education they deserve and a chance to lead self-determined, independent lives.
One of the core services of ISDs is to provide services and support for students with disabilities. In recent years, however, the scope of special education in Michigan has changed. Previously, the focus has been on regulations and compliance.
That focus has shifted toward an ongoing trend of more inclusive programs. Inclusive programs educate students with disabilities alongside their general education peers, while also having access to service and support options so that each student feels a sense of belonging, meets high expectations, develops meaningful relationships and leaves school ready for post-secondary education and a career.
Most high quality educational practices require preparation, training, leadership, vision and the allocation of resources; inclusive education is no different.
For special education administrators, that means there is a need to redefine what a quality program looks like. More than ever before, administrators need to have increased knowledge and expertise with the general education curriculum, assessment and instruction.
That’s where organizations like the Michigan Association of Administrators of Special Education step in.
With MAASE, special education administrators are provided with access to opportunities to increase their skills with leadership, political advocacy and professional collaboration for working with families and educational partners.
“With this emerging change, special education administrators have had to become advocates for students in a very different manner, requiring new skill sets to help further this work,” says Donna Jones, president of MAASE.  
In Michigan, special education extends beyond K-12, with services provided from birth through age 26. So, what happens after students finish school?
Life after school is a big change, and for students with disabilities, preparing for the challenges of post-school life is even more critical.
Scott Menzel, superintendent of Washtenaw ISD and chair of the Michigan Association of Intermediate School Administrators Early Childhood Committee, knows those early years of preparation set the course for future success.
By focusing efforts on providing support for families to create environments where children can thrive, there is a greater likelihood that ISDs will achieve other goals, such as reading proficiency and college and career readiness.
“All children come into this world with tremendous potential, but many are born into circumstances that are not conducive to reaching that potential,” says Menzel. “Early intervention can help ensure that more students are on a path to success in school and life.”
Most students with Individualized Education Plans (IEP) begin the transition process at age 14. The administrators, educators, family and student begin to focus the discussion around transition and formulate a plan that allows the student to achieve the most typical adulthood experience possible.
However, navigating the landscape of transition is not an easy task for parents.
“It’s an overwhelming process and many parents don’t feel like they can contribute in that process,” says Caryn Pack, co-director of the Michigan Alliance for Families.
As Michigan’s federally funded Parent Training and Information Center and a Michigan Department of Education IDEA Grant Funded initiative, the Michigan Alliance for Families connects families of children with disabilities with training and resources to help improve their child’s education.
Research has shown that students with disabilities have better outcomes when their family is involved in their education­­. More often than not, many parents don’t know what they don’t know.
“A lot of times, parents are focused on education, and not so much what their student will do once their education is complete,” explains Michelle Miller, co-director of the alliance.
Due to the complicated process of transition planning, the alliance centers much of its training on the adjustment -- assisting parents in helping their children become self-determined adults.
In fact, each staff member is a parent or family member of an individual with disabilities, equipping them with first-hand experience of the special education system and an immediate connection with families that seek their help.
“When you have a child or family member with a disability, you immediately become part of this club,” Miller says. “That experience crosses over every imaginable boundary there is when you’re talking to another parent.”
As the scope of special education shifts, there are growing expectations for students with disabilities to become productive members of the community.
Organizations like MAASE, MAISA Early Childhood Committee and the Michigan Alliance for Families help educators, families and students work to successfully make the transition.
“Although they sometimes don’t have a voice, all students have value and deserve to be given the opportunity to achieve their full potential,” says Menzel.  “No one deserves to have their life’s prospect limited by virtue of their zip code, race, ethnicity, gender or disability.”
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