Stop forcing older students out of high school mid-year

Our approach to students with disabilities must change

LAST SPRING, high schoolers everywhere missed out on important rites of passage. Proms, graduations, senior skip days and other cherished traditions all ground to a halt. The impossible circumstances of COVID-19 reminded us that school is more than academics. It’s a social experience where youth develop a sense of self, hone their interests, and find community. 

Yet even in pre-COVID times, a subset of students finished school with none of the same fanfare, as their right to graduate in a cohort of peers eluded them each year. Students with disabilities who are unable to complete standard graduation requirements forfeit their diplomas and instead join transition programs. Required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), transition programs are designed to ensure that individuals with disabilities ages 3 to 21 receive the necessary services to achieve independence after high school. 

However, in Boston Public Schools, the program abruptly ends for students when they turn 22, regardless of where in the year that falls. This policy implementation robs students of a typical, healthy closure from high school, instead thrusting students out at random times of year.  

Last year’s state district report said BPS special education was in “systemic disarray” and critiqued its focus on compliance over students’ best interests. But it’s the state’s own rigid adherence to IDEA’s mandate to provide services through age 21 that ultimately deprives students of key social experiences that define the typical transition out of high school. 

I’ve seen this disarray firsthand, working for a small nonprofit that partners with BPS. Throughout the year, students I work with say goodbye to each other on random school days at farewell/22nd birthday parties with cafeteria pizza or a grocery store cake. Recurring farewell parties are a normal piece of their experience but distressing to students who don’t cope well with change. Transition programs teach students to socialize, build essential skills, even to learn and follow routines. Yet these gains disappear amidst the chaos of frequent and unexpected goodbyes that, for any other high schoolers, come once a year at graduation. 

I worked with two inseparable students who’ve been best friends since elementary school – one born in May and the other in June. In their final year, one will finish out the school year and the other will be forced out a few weeks early. After over a decade of spending every weekday together, they’ll quietly part on an arbitrary May afternoon. And like most youth with disabilities who rely on school as the great socializer, the two have never connected outside of school. Leaving school often means the end of transition students’ friendships. Due to their disability status and enrollment in transition, their high school experience ends abruptly and the two won’t get the chance to celebrate their achievements together like their non-disabled peers do. 

Besides being unfair, this abrupt end is wasteful. Shrinking the classroom as the year progresses has little budget impact. A teacher’s salary doesn’t depend on class size. There are few costs associated with providing services until the end of the school year, whereas the benefits could be lifelong. This mistake requires few resources to fix and represents a straightforward change that would shift BPS special education away from narrow compliance and toward equity. 

Other states recognize these benefits. Tennessee extends the law so students finish the school year after turning 22. Connecticut lets students with disabilities receive services through the end of the school year they turn 21. Very little public data exist to show how states interpret this federal law, but at least a handful adapt their own state laws to account for the school year cycle rather than adhere to a strict age limit.  

Meet the Author
Forcing students to leave mid-year when they turn 22 is not only counterintuitive to program goals, it sends the message that their education is just a formality and their opportunities as adults are limited. We should follow the lead of other states and change our education laws to allow 22-year-olds to finish the school year. Even without such a change at the state level, Boston and other communities could adopt that policy at the district level. Besides enhancing program effectiveness, this change would provide youth with disabilities a more dignified and equitable high school experience. They should finish school in a way that reflects their time and effort invested.   

Emma Kahn is a program administrator at Partners for Youth with Disabilities, a Somerville-based nonprofit that delivers career readiness programming within Boston Public Schools. She recently completed a master’s degree program in public policy at Simmons University, with a focus on disability and special education policy.