SAD 51 school board revises grad policy with eye toward disabled students

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CUMBERLAND — The School Administrative District 51 Board of Directors on Monday unanimously approved a revision to its graduation requirements that offers alternative standards to special needs students so they can complete high school.

The revised policy is a challenge to how the Maine Department of Education interprets state statute, and the Drummond-Woodsum law firm is representing SAD 51 for free to fight any state challenge to the policy that might come, according to Superintendent Jeff Porter.

DOE Communications Director Anne Gabbianelli said in an email Tuesday that the department was aware of SAD 51’s action, but would not comment at this time.

The new policy tackles diploma requirements more broadly, but also includes a new process that allows modifying graduation standards if a student’s disability require it.

The new rule “addresses situations that will arise once Maine law takes effect requiring that high schools issue regular diplomas only to students who have demonstrated mastery at the high school level in a wide variety of academic areas,” a SAD 51 press release stated Tuesday, adding that for the Cumberland-North Yarmouth district, that change would occur in the 2020-21 school year, impacting this year’s seventh grade class.

Porter said in an interview Tuesday that the state statute is “ambiguous,” and being determined in different ways.

“The Department of Education has clearly said that they believe that students with special needs all need to attain the same proficiency levels as any other student, which we feel is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Most districts in Maine feel it’s wrong.”

That should be a decision made by the Individual Education Plan team for a special needs student, “and it should not be something that’s arbitrarily decided by the state,” Porter added.

Through SAD 51’s newly-adopted policy, if the IEP team for a special needs student finds that the student “is unlikely to meet standards in any one of the required areas even when presented with multiple pathways for success … the team could then establish other, alternative standards in that area, also aligned with Maine’s Learning Results but at a somewhat different level,” the press release states.

Should the student meet those alternative standards, along with any unaltered standards, he or she would earn a regular Greely High School diploma, according to the district.

Drummond-Woodsum approached SAD 51 about taking on the matter, and offered to defend the district for free, Porter said.

“I believe we’re the first district in Maine” to adopt the new policy, he said.

Porter and Julie Olsen, SAD 51’s director of instructional support, stated in the press release that they were motivated to promote the new policy to avoid unfairness to disabled students as a result of the state’s new requirement of standards-based diplomas.

“The worst injustice that could occur, they both said, is for a student with a disability to do every single thing that the school asks of them, to achieve up to the student’s full potential, but then at the end of the day to escort them out the door without a regular high school diploma because of limitations imposed simply by the student’s disability,” the release added.

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.