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Strengthening Our Emphasis on Special Education

Tuesday, November 26, 2019 | 10:00am

By Darrell Cobbins, State Board of Education Member for the Ninth Congressional District

When we discuss or debate education policy, our students with special needs are seldom the first priority. Given that the majority of students are served through general education in traditional classrooms, it is very easy for special education to get lost in the mix. How then do we ensure that our most vulnerable students receive the support and services they need to achieve in their academic life?

A study by Hechinger Report in 2017 suggested that "up to 90 percent of students with disabilities are capable of graduating high school fully prepared to tackle college or a career if they receive proper support along the way."

To give our students with special needs the education they deserve, parents, educators, and policymakers need to work together to ensure our students are not lost in the shuffle.

At the state level, the State Board of Education and the Tennessee Department of Education are constantly working together to focus on excellent, equitable education for students with special needs. Last year, the State Board of Education approved the addition of the alternate academic diploma within the state’s High School Policy, which provides a path for students with more significant cognitive disabilities to earn a diploma and demonstrate their knowledge and skills. This new diploma joins the occupational diploma and special education diploma as an option available for our students with special needs to shine according to their unique abilities.

Preparing students for life outside the classroom is vitally important for all of our students, but especially for those who face challenges their entire educational experience. Equipping these students with the skills that will serve them later in life is critical for them to be self-sufficient, empowered, and ready to lead lives as productive and prosperous citizens.

As work-based learning expands across the state, it is imperative that our students with special needs are offered the same learning opportunities as their peers. To meet this need, the Tennessee Department of Education has developed guidance for educators seeking to engage students with special needs in work-based learning.

While schools provide critical services for students with disabilities, parents are children's first teachers and most impassioned advocates. Parents of special needs students should be informed and empowered to advocate for their children’s education. When students can’t speak up for themselves and their education, it is up to their parents. The parents’ voice is vital to ensure that decisions made regarding special education are made to improve their children’s well-being. The state Council on Developmental Disabilities developed a free leadership and advocacy training program for the families of students with disabilities. Equipped with this knowledge and training in disability advocacy, families will be better prepared to champion the needs of their students both inside and outside the classroom.

As a parent of a student with special needs, I know firsthand that we can and should give our most earnest efforts to ensure these children are ultimately able to live full and productive lives. Those efforts have to occur today for them to have a promising tomorrow. By working together, parents, educators, and policymakers can build an educational experience that best prepares all students for success in the classroom and beyond.


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The Tennessee State Board of Education is a ten-member, governor-appointed and legislatively confirmed board charged under the law with rulemaking and policymaking for K-12 education. Through a close partnership with the Tennessee Department of Education, the Board maintains oversight in K-12 implementation and academic standards.