New WV Initiative to Improve Graduation Rates for Special Needs Students

(WVVA) - Nearly 85% of students graduated with a high school diploma in West Virginia last year.  For those with a disability, only 70% graduated.

But now there is a new state-wide initiative that is working to help close that gap.

Graduation 20/20 is just beginning this school year and Wednesday was the kickoff training event.

The goal of the program is to get an 85% graduation rate for special needs students by 2020.

"Our economy requires people to graduate and get a diploma and that's what our job is and just caring for kids," says Mitchell Estep, the graduation coach for Mount View High School.

Over their lifetime, high school graduates earn 74% more than those who drop out. And while graduation rates are on the rise in West Virginia, one group of students has a lower success rate.

"These schools were targeted because of their special ed population and their graduation rate being below 70% in that population," says Teresa Epperley, the Regional School Support Specialist for Graduation for RESA 1.

On Wednesday, 11 schools with a rate below 70% brought in leadership teams to learn how to individually target at-risk students.

"We're going to find the data that they need to know what the problem is, why the students aren't graduating, whether its an attendance problem, a behavioral problem, and create a plan," Epperley tells WVVA. "So each school's plan may be a little different."

Estep says, "When kids understand when you care, they will care and I think that's the focus in West Virginia. We want to let all the kids know that each and every kid graduate."

And those with disabilities can prove to be exceptional employees.

"A lot of them are autistic and have other learning problems and they're hired and they work and they perform," Epperley says. "They're probably some of the best workers."

She says they they will also continue to follow up with the students after graduation to see if they are seeking employment or further education. And they'll talk with local businesses about what opportunities there are for these students.