Charleston County school leaders want their special-education students to be able to earn a high school diploma, but making that happen will require changes beyond their control, and they're asking for help.

The state doesn't have an alternative high school diploma for students with special needs, and it lacks multiple options for testing students with disabilities. Charleston educators already briefed the county's legislative delegation on those problems, and they plan to make a formal proposal for needed changes after winter break.

They've also come up with some ideas they could implement in the district without state assistance, and they're putting those into place.

"Our purpose is to send a strong message to the state that we can't keep working on this for years and years and not see an outcome," said West Ashley High School Principal Mary Runyon. "We need to see an outcome, and we need to see it quickly."

They haven't approached state Superintendent Mick Zais with their proposals, but Jay Ragley, the department's deputy superintendent for legislative and public affairs, said he would be open to both ideas.

Measuring progress

Charleston educators' advocacy is the outgrowth of two special-education summits hosted by the district in the fall. Parents, parent advocates, college professors, principals and teachers gathered to talk about how the district could better serve its students with disabilities. Those children make up nearly 10 percent of the district's enrollment.

One of the greatest concerns that emerged was the tests students must take. The state has one alternate assessment that can be used for students with severe and profound cognitive disabilities, but only a small number of students qualify for that. Most students with disabilities take the same tests as their nondisabled peers, and that's not a fair measure of their actual growth, said Lisa Herring, an associate superintendent who oversees the district's Department of Exceptional Children Services.

She and others would like to see "differentiated accountability," or using more and multiple ways to determine whether students achieved academic growth. One Belle Hall Elementary School parent, Sarah Johnson, felt so strongly about this issue that she filed an unrelated complaint in the summer with the federal Office of Civil Rights. She said it was discriminatory to require mentally unable students to take the state exam when physically unable students are exempt.

Johnson said she believed it would hurt her son, a special-needs student, to take the state test when he wasn't prepared to do so.

Another key area discussed during the summits was the need for an alternative high school diploma. The state has only one option for students, and those who don't meet its requirements receive a Certificate of Attendance.

That document doesn't reflect what students learned, and they want one that would, Herring said.

Finding a better way

William Reinecke is the parent of a third-grader with disabilities and was involved with the summits. He applauded the district for having those conversations and said he thought officials were listening and not simply paying lip service.

He supports the idea of developing alternative tests as long as it still holds the district accountable for educating special-needs students, he said.

"We don't want the school district to simply come up with a way to deliver what appears to be better results at the expense of kids, but we also understand our kids are different," he said "Our perspective is different, but I think we're working toward the same goal."

In terms of the changes going on within the district, officials are trying to give parents more information about their children's academic progress, said Cindy McCown, director of the district's Department of Exceptional Children Services. They're doing that by expanding the documents in student portfolios that show what's been done to increase their learning, she said.

"We want Charleston to take the lead on developing a strong plan that other districts can look at as well," McCown said.

Beverly McCarty is director of the nonprofit Family Resource Center, which works with families of students with disabilities. She said she hasn't seen how the new portfolios are making a difference for students.

It's a good idea, McCarty said, but more would need to be done to make the change meaningful, such as providing specifics on what the portfolio should include so that it's not a collection of worksheets.

She supported both the district's proposals to lawmakers. It's not good for students' self-esteem or anxiety to take tests they've not been prepared to take, and an alternative diploma could give potential employers more information about what students know, she said.

"There's certainly got to be a better way than is currently being done," McCarty said.

Reach Diette Courrégé at 937-5546.