New categories of high school diplomas for students with various kinds of disabilities will be the topic of a town hall with state Rep. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, on Thursday.

The new diplomas are intended to provide meaningful documentation of educational attainment by students with developmental disabilities, autism, dyslexia and other special needs.

The modified diploma, approved by the 2007 Legislature, requires the completion of 24 credits, just like the standard diploma, but the credits can be earned by completing courses modified to accommodate the needs of disabled learners.

The extended diploma is aimed at students with more profound learning challenges, often those enrolled in Life Skills classes. These students need only earn 12 credits, but at least half of them must be for courses taught outside the self-contained environment of a Life Skills or other special education classroom.

To be eligible for the new diplomas, students must have a documented disability and must have the written consent of their parents. Higher-achieving students can still pursue a standard diploma, and the most severely disabled can still receive an alternative certificate.

“Nobody is required to pursue either of these,” said Gelser, the chief sponsor of both bills. “For those students who can or want to try, state law now says they have the opportunity to do that.”

Gelser said the legislation was needed because some districts were shortchanging students with disabilities, either by forcing them into an all-vocational track or giving them an alternative certificate even if their classwork merited some higher level of recognition. Employers who might consider hiring some of these students were left in the dark about their true capabilities.

“There were no standards and there really were no expectations” for students with learning disabilities, Gelser said. “In many districts they weren’t earning credits, and in a lot of districts they weren’t even allowed to go through commencement exercises to receive a certificate of attendance.”

The new laws also guarantee access to academic as well as vocational classes to students with disabilities in Oregon public schools.

“That’s really consistent with what the federal special education law says,” Gelser said.

At Thursday’s town hall meeting, Gelser will discuss how the new diplomas work, who may be eligible, credit and class requirements, and planning strategies for families.

She will also answer questions from the audience.

The event is aimed at parents, teachers, educational assistants, high school counselors and others involved in educating or supporting students with disabilities.

Bennett Hall can be reached at 758-9529 or bennett.hall@lee.net.

Special Projects Editor, Corvallis Gazette-Times and Albany Democrat-Herald

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