Traverse City Record-Eagle

September 21, 2013

A 'special' journey

Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — FIFE LAKE — A high school diploma normally is considered a good thing, but it hasn’t worked out that way for Daniel Everson.

Everson took mostly special education classes at Forest Area Community Schools and graduated in 2004. Yet he was nowhere close to high school level and suffered from bipolar disorder, ADHD, and oppositional defiant disorder.

Daniel’s diploma, his parents discovered, made him permanently ineligible for post-high school services offered by the Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District.

“I feel they should have kept me in until I knew how to adapt to the real world,” said Daniel, who struggles for words.

Now high school students with special needs can get real-world training with a new TBAISD semester course called “Transition Central.” For 2 ½ hours each day, students will learn skills such as riding public buses, cooking and making a budget.

The TBAISD created the class in response to an analysis of how students with disabilities do after high school, said Carol Greilick, assistant superintendent for special education.

“When it’s clear there are needs not being met, we need to do a better job, and shame on us if we don’t,” she said.

But Carl and Rene’ Everson are living with the consequences of Daniel’s early exit and want to tell the story of their two sons, both cognitively impaired with mental health challenges.

On a recent early evening, Carl and Rene’ were both at their small Fife Lake ranch home, cluttered with children’s toys and Daniel’s clothes in the living room, his makeshift bedroom. Carl demonstrated to Daniel, 27, how to make bean soup, while Rene’ tutored his 9-year-old stepdaughter.

The couple knew little about “transitioning” Daniel to the real world when they met with an IEP team in the spring of 2004 in his senior year. An IEP, an individualized education program, is a written agreement about how a child with disabilities will be educated.

The couple thought Daniel’s skills were higher than they were, and became alarmed as he lost a series of jobs and seemed to regress. He married in 2010, went through a split-up this past summer, and moved back home with his four-year-old son, Trevor.

Now Carl and Rene’, both 52, devote their spare time to teaching Daniel real-life skills. They also care for Trevor and, more often than not, Daniel’s two young stepdaughters. The couple evolved as strong advocates by the time their younger son, Kelly, approached his graduation date in 2006.

Kelly’s IEP team also recommended a high school diploma and enrollment in a downstate trade school. The couple, given 24 hours to sign it, refused. Kelly’s cognitive skills were even lower than Daniel’s and he couldn’t pass the trade school exam. They found an ally in Jane Shank of the Association of Children’s Mental Health, a nonprofit.

“I came in just at the time where it really looked truly, as if he was just going to get his diploma, walk across the stage and be done. It was a ‘Hail Mary’ pass,” said Shank of Interlochen.

Shank suggested Kelly attend TBAISD’s ACE program, which teaches young adults with mild cognitive impairments how to navigate work and home life up to age 26. Only about four seniors go into ACE each year. The Adult Work Center also offers programs for students with severe impairments.

The couple met four times with the IEP team, the last a huge gathering at the Career Tech Center where Kelly read a letter to the team, pleading to stay in school.

“… (W)hat I saying in this letter or note is the honest to god truth every night I pray pray to go the adult work center so I can get my learning Disability straight that means all school work,” he said.

The IEP team, in the end, relented.

Kelly attended ACE until age 23, trying out jobs such as cleaning up the State Theatre. He married a fellow student and now works at Grand Traverse Industries and volunteers at Forest Area High School.

“ACE taught you how to budget your money so you can have your own place,” said Kelly, explaining his success.

“That’s something I never had,” said Daniel. “I tried living by myself, but things didn’t work out.”

Rene’ and Carl believe the state should adopt a pass/fail test for academic and real world skills before awarding a diploma to students in special education.

Since then, the state has set out tough graduation standards. Those who can’t attain the standards often receive a certificate of completion. It doesn’t mean an irrevocable exit from the public school system, but normally the end of public school education, Greilick said.

Greilick said federal law mandates that students with disabilities be offered the highest expectations possible, which often means leaving public school after twelfth grade.

If students are capable of earning a high school diploma, it is their right to do so, she said.

“I’m not commenting on any particular case, but most parents are happy their student can accomplish graduation requirements,” Greilick said.