Mississippi’s special education students must pass regular courses and four exams to earn a high school diploma. Many settle for an “occupational” diploma or a certificate of completion. But the occupational diploma limits college and job training options, write Jackie Mader and Sarah Butrymowicz on the Hechinger Report.
In the 12 years since the “occupational track,’’ was developed, Mississippi’s 15 community college have wavered on admitting alternate diploma graduates into academic tracks. Susan Molesworth, director of special education for the Long Beach School District, said the occupational diploma was never meant to be a college prep curriculum.
“Some of the [occupational diploma] kids that were coming into junior colleges weren’t able to do it,” Molesworth said. “They were failing.”
Only seven of the state’s community colleges accept alternate diploma students into academic programs.
Hinds Community College, which runs five campuses, decided in December to to stop accepting the occupational diploma for academic classes. Occupational grads can enroll only in certain career programs, such as office systems technology and meat merchandising.
Pearl River Community College does not accept occupational diplomas for financial reasons, said Scott Alsobrooks, vice president for economic and community development. The federal government doesn’t view the “occupational diploma’’ as equivalent to the GED or a high school diploma, so students can’t get federal grants or student loans.
Special ed students meet much lower academic expectations in high school, report Mader and Butrymowicz. At Brandon High School, students on the occupational track might take Employment English, Job Skills Math, Life Skills Science and Career Preparation.
A ninth grader is taught to “distinguish between odd and even numbers” and “determine, count, and make change in solving problems” in math.
In a 12th-grade occupational math class, seniors were reviewing vocabulary words about checks, such as “memo line” and “void.”
Still, only 28 percent of special ed students earn an occupational diploma, while 61 percent leave with a certificate of completion. The certificate, designed for severely disabled students, doesn’t qualify students for anything.
If students can’t meet academic standards in high school, it’s no surprise they can’t meet academic standards in college. But the “occupational” diploma should prepare students for success in job training programs.