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Expert Answers: Dr. Mary Morningstar on Transition Strategies

The third and final webinar for our Results Matter: Closing the Achievement Gap webinar series was led by expert on post high school transition strategies Dr. Mary Morningstar. During “How to Improve Transition Results for High School Students with Disabilities” Dr. Morningstar described six academic and non-academic domains special educators can use to address transition challenges and discussed the implications for program level implementation. After the webinar, Dr. Morningstar fielded questions from district leaders, educators, and clinicians moderated by our co-founder and co-CEO Clay Whitehead. Below is a summary of their discussion.

Clay: We’ve had so much interest in this topic from our audience, and I’m so glad that you could share your work and your experience with us today. The first question is, what impact do you expect the ESSA will have on the college and career readiness priority you’ve outlined for us?

Dr. Morningstar: That’s a really interesting and intriguing question. The new federal regulatory language associated with education in general has an interesting new twist to it. The good news is that in some respects it provides more flexibility to states. It allows states to become more responsive, particularly with their accountability and assessment system. One of the things that I know is going to be essential within ESSA in terms of a focus on low performing schools is that any school where the graduation rate is less than 67% is going to be considered a targeted school.

Thinking about high schools, and a lot of what I talked about related to student engagement is going to potentially come a little more at the front-end of the school’s accountability. Then, the other thing I just want to mention is that related to the state assessments, there still is very specific language around accountability, in particular, the academic assessment. While the law does not explicitly use college and career readiness terminology, it does talk about state standards having to be in line with post secondary education and state career tech ed standards. I think that is actually a benefit to those of us interested in college and career readiness.

There’s one last thing I want to mention about the assessments. At least two of the assessments have to be academic, and for high schools, graduation rate is considered a critical assessment that has to be tracked. There is an opportunity for one other academic measure, and there must also be an indicator of school success or school quality like a school climate survey, an assessment that is producing some data around our students needing 21st century skills, or the college and career readiness domains that you may be operating under within your state. I hope that helps in terms of thinking about how ESSA can actually give states a bit more flexibility in prioritizing college and career readiness.

Clay: It does. There is so much more to talk about there but let me get a down to a more specific level, I’m talking about students here. What grade level should special education teachers be talking about transition planning? When should those conversation start?

Dr. Morningstar: In this webinar, I did not talk about the specific transition mandates under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. We all know what’s required in terms of compliance. You need to be completing formalized transition planning right around middle school. In some states transition planning begins at 14, in other states it’s 16. The federal regulatory language mandates by 16 years old, so that would be high school. However, it’s pretty clear that transition begins much earlier. In my mind we should start talking about transition or what do you want to do when you grow up as early as preschool.

Clay: From a student level, how can we gauge which students are college bound and who is best suited for the workforce?

Dr. Morningstar: First of all, I’m not a proponent of tracking students with disabilities and making decisions about which direction they need to go. I know some of the states that are probably represented on the call do have some occupational certificates or diplomas that require you to essentially start tracking students in 8th grade because the curriculum might look slightly different by the time you get to high school. I know that you all are probably under some additional constraints in terms of gauging students who are college bound. While the term “college bound” is a typical phrase that we tend to use, I think it often limits our thinking in terms of post secondary education.

When I talk about college and career readiness and post secondary education, I am concerned about a much broader range: both tech school internships and apprenticeships and other types of adult training that’s necessary to promote better employment and workforce readiness. I would actually say all students are capable, and in our current society, the best jobs are those where individuals have had some level of additional training. If we think about it from that perspective, all students are college bound or capable of entering into post secondary educational settings.

The other thing I just want to mention is that includes students with intellectual disability. The Department of Education office is supporting comprehensive transition programs for students with intellectual disability. Here at KU, we have a new program that we’ve just launched this fall where we have students on campus who are enrolled in campus courses. It’s a fully inclusive program and it is designed for use by those with intellectual disability. What we used to think about is who is college bound and who is not, but this has also shifted as research and technology have improved. We know that even for students with the most significant disability, some type of formalized work-based adult training leads to better outcomes.

Clay: What evaluation and assessment tools do you find are effective in determining each kids’ transition needs?

Dr. Morningstar: I’ve done quite a bit of work around and a lot of training on transition assessments. We do have quite a few resources on our website, the transition coalition that folks can explore later. We have a training module on transition assessment and we have some other materials and resources related to this, including specifically for students with more significant disabilities. However, I’d like to broaden this question because transition really is not about needs.

Clearly, in order for students to be successful post high school, we as educators, as special educators, as other educators in buildings, have to consider the students’ preferences, strengths, and interests, as well as their support needs. From that perspective, there is not a single instrument that’s going to meet the needs of all students in the special education program or building or a district or a state.

There are some really strong and emerging standardized assessments related to transition that do focus on preferences, strength, interest, and needs. We have examples of them on our website if you need more information about them. Typically, I think of a more global formal assessment for students just entering the transition process. Potentially in middle school, you might think about a comprehensive assessment. If a student transfers into your school or to your district and you’re not as familiar with that student, you might need a global assessment. However, what we know and what most well-equipped schools have in place are transition toolkits in which there’s a range of assessments.

Typically, they’re informal because, for a lot of students, what you’re really getting down to is some of the individual preferences and interests of that student. I will say that as you’re looking at building a transition assessment toolkit, you do have to consider the range of the outcome domain area, thinking particularly about employment and career development, education (continuing education, post secondary education) and then independent living adult roles and responsibilities. Those are the big buckets that you want to make sure you at least have a set that you can pick and choose from as you come across students with very unique and differences and needs.

Clay: That’s a great because I think you give us a lot of specifics to begin to share. There’s clearly a hunger for specifics here. The next question is about something you talked about in your presentation: the need for financial literacy and how to access so many resources. The question is, who does this? Where does it fit into the school day? Help us get a mental picture of this.

Dr. Morningstar: The topic of transition to adulthood is not simple. It’s not a curriculum or an intervention. It really does require systems thinking and almost about how we disrupt our systems. In my mind, our students should be enrolled in any business math class or financial literacy courses that a high school that has.This includes students with more significant disabilities, cognitive disabilities, moderate, and deaf and blind students, as long as the special education teacher makes the necessary modifications and adaptations so that student can gain access at the level of their individualized needs.

I also think there needs to be a community wide effort around topics like financial literacy and other adult roles and responsibilities. Families need to be involved at that point. There are a lot of families that support their child to open a bank account or using a credit card p-5 bg-lightest mb-3. Families need to be brought into the partnership, as well as the community at large. There are probably community organizations and banks who would gladly be invited into secondary schools to partner with schools around some of these external activities.

I talked about how you can build in some other supports around places where students and families are already congregating as a part of high school. I think we have to think outside the box. It’s not just the responsibility of the school. It’s not something just the special education teacher has to add on to his or her plate. They do need to participate and make sure their students are included but seeking out those outside groups and families and the community at large and bringing them into the high school is a really powerful strategy to pick up some of these extra pieces.

Clay: It is. How can we provide more work-based learning opportunities to support our students with learning disabilities?

Dr. Morningstar: I think that’s a similar answer. However, I’m going to respond slightly differently, thinking about community partnerships. I’d like to add to it because I know some of the questions that came through were for students with severe cognitive delays. How do we keep them out of segregated workshops. For all students with disabilities, it’s about providing more work-based learning opportunities. Most high schools have at least some element of business or career tech ed that comes out of general education. They may also be implementing extracurricular activities.

There are clubs and service organizations related to work-based learning and internships. They may be actually running school internships for students without disabilities. Then, if you look in special ed, we may have a vocational coordinator or someone who has created a parallel system just for students with disabilities and I’m certainly a proponent of aggregating up those activities. If you have career tech ed programs happening and you’ve also got a vocational coordinator or you’ve got transition coordinators who are looking at work-based learning for students with disabilities, aggregating those so that you have one program in your high school that all students can access is certainly an essential and probably will be the most bang for your buck down the road.

Now, that said, there’s also other ways, particularly for students with a learning disability who spend the majority of their day in academic settings. They’re maybe completing a typical college bound curriculum. Summer programs are typically funded through collaboration with schools, and now the Workforce Investment Act or the more recent Workforce Investment Opportunity Act provides funding and partnerships particularly bringing vocational rehabilitation to the school table as, again, a way to aggregate the services and resources within a community. I think we do have to think more broadly about what does work-based learning mean.

It’s not practicing skills in a classroom. We have 40 years of research that clearly shows prevocational skills in special education classrooms do not lead to long-term employment outcomes. If we’re particularly concerned about students transitioning into inclusive integrated employment settings, the most critical factors that influence that outcome are having paid work prior to exiting special education or a high school program and taking career and occupational courses. Some students remain under special education services until 21 years old and that’s another way to really substantially beef up the work-based learning in fully inclusive integrated community settings after high school.

Clay: Great. We have time for one last question. You mentioned bang for your buck and it’s obviously on our audience members’ minds. One person asked, with district resources so slim, how do you find the best tools and web resources that will help students with transition planning?

Dr. Morningstar: Good question. I would like to say start at the Transition Coalition first. That’s the website we’ve developed. It is primarily funded through federal and state funding. Just about all of the resources on there are open and free. We have designed it so that there are tools and applications available for the practitioner and the family. I think that’s a good place to start. From there, you can get to quite a lot of other links to other really excellent resources related to transition planning. I might also mention that we are now partnering with the National Transition Technical Assistance Center and that center is, again, federally funded, designed to work directly with states and districts providing a range of training and technical assistance from following an MTSS model.

To watch Dr. Morningstar’s entire 90-minute webinar and download the accompanying slides and resource handouts, click here.

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