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LI parents press Regents chancellor on diploma changes

Betty Pilnik, left, of Oceanside, and Bonnie Buckley,

Betty Pilnik, left, of Oceanside, and Bonnie Buckley, right, of East Islip, of the Long Island-based advocacy group Multiple Pathways to a High School Diploma for All, talk with Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa about diploma requirements at the Regents meeting in Albany on Monday, July 17, 2017. Credit: Hans Pennink

ALBANY — The state Board of Regents chancellor, confronted Monday by anxious Long Island parents at the panel’s meeting, assured them she will look into complaints that more teenagers are at risk of leaving high school without diplomas.

Chancellor Betty Rosa of the Bronx, in a brief exchange with mothers from more than a half-dozen Island school districts, said the board is preparing to launch discussions of a revamped statewide diploma system.

“Just know that tomorrow, we are absolutely starting discussion of the diploma issue,” Rosa, a former bilingual instructor and community superintendent, told them. “And we are absolutely going to address that.”

The group of about 25 parents who traveled to Albany to press its case included residents of the Bellmore-Merrick, East Islip, East Meadow, North Babylon, Oceanside, Patchogue-Medford and Rockville Centre systems.

A major concern for parents of students struggling with the state’s recently strengthened Regents exams is that they will fail to meet minimum scoring requirements and receive high school “commencement credentials” rather than traditional diplomas.

The number of those students is relatively small so far. Only 3,369 students statewide received such credentials during the 2015-16 school year out of 184,639 completing high school. Credential recipients included 391 students in Nassau and Suffolk counties.

Employers often are reported to reject such credentials as evidence of qualification for entry-level jobs. State Education Department officials said they’re working to change this skepticism among employers, adding that civil service rules already in place allow state hiring of up to 1,200 individuals with disabilities and no diplomas.

The chancellor provided no details on what changes the 17-member Regents board might make in the state’s graduation rules on top of revisions already made, or how much time might be required to put additional changes into effect.

Rosa, who was elected the board’s chancellor in March 2016, is a longtime advocate for at-risk youths. Several parents who surrounded her as she took a break from a three-hour morning meeting acknowledged her past support for their cause, but they voiced their continuing frustration.

“So we can expect good news on Thursday?” one called out as the chancellor hurried back to her conference and the rest of the crowd laughed.

Over the past six years, as part of an effort to boost academic standards, the state has eliminated features of its graduation system that served as a “safety net” for students with learning disabilities and special education needs.

For example, the state phased out the use of Regents Competency Tests, which were much easier than Regents exams. Also eliminated were so-called IEP diplomas, once awarded to special education students who completed individualized education programs that often include training in skills such as dressing or feeding themselves.

Several mothers told a Newsday reporter Monday that the changes threaten devastating losses of confidence for their teens.

Betty Pilnik, 51, of Oceanside said that her son, Brandon, 19, who has a language processing disorder, passed a Regents exam in algebra but not in English Language Arts. She described him as a talented singer and guitar player, with an 88 to 95 grade average in his coursework, who is capable of holding a job but unlikely to land one without passing more exams and earning a diploma.

“That’s a life-changer for them,” Pilnik said of students in similar situations. “They’re not going to be able to support themselves, and that leads to depression, anxiety, drug abuse and the thought of suicide.”

State Education Department officials, who report to the Regents board, later released a statement saying that discussions are underway on the possible development of alternative assessments based on students’ completion of projects, rather than Regents exams.

“This is not about changing our graduation standards,” stated Emily DeSantis, assistant state education commissioner for public affairs. “It’s about providing different avenues — equally rigorous — for kids to demonstrate they are ready to graduate with a meaningful diploma.”

Regents already approved a recent change in rules that allows special education students to pass some Regents exams with scores as low as 45 out of 100, so long as they pass other exams with scores of at least 65.

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