May 15, 2021

INCLUSIVE INCLUSION: There’s nothing holding Anna Fitzgerald back

Newton schools change policy allowing IDEA seniors to participate in commencement ceremony

Anna Fitzgerald is going to walk across the stage at commencement ceremony next month wearing the same cap and gown as everybody else in her grade.

The 19-year-old Newton High School senior will be surrounded by her peers, listen to speeches and wait for her name to be called before she and the rest of the 2021 graduates triumphantly toss their caps into the air. She will share this moment with the friends and teammates she’s grown up with since preschool.

If the school board hadn’t changed its student policies this past week, Anna may not have been able to fully experience this year’s commencement ceremony. Her parents, Shelly and Don Fitzgerald, would have had to explain why she couldn’t participate in graduation with the students she’s known her entire life.

Shelly Fitzgerald, a counselor at Newton High, pleaded with the school board on April 12 to approve the proposed changes to the district’s commencement policy. The changes allow special consideration to students eligible under Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) to participate in commencement ceremony, even if their requirements or goals are not fully met.

“We’re asking the board to reconsider the commencement policy to be more inclusive to the special needs students,” Shelly Fitzgerald said. “Anna’s been at the high school for four years and she’s envisioned being able to walk/graduate with her peers. She would love to walk at graduation.

“Right now, it states that students that do not complete (their) requirements are not able to walk. But according to the department of education we can do a policy that states students with an IEP (Individualized Education Program) would be allowed to walk.”

Even though Anna Fitzgerald would be able to walk at graduation, she would not receive her diploma until her goals are met. Under IDEA, Anna Fitzgerald can continue schooling until she’s 21 years old. Shelly Fitzgerald said her daughter is on track to finish her IEP goals in the next year or so.

Jessica Ferguson, director of special education at Newton Community School District, said the population of students that would be eligible for this special consideration is “pretty slim.” Of the students who require special education, about 2 percent would fall into this type of situation.

The other 98 percent of students in special education typically would not require additional services after their senior year, Ferguson added.

Most of Newton’s students with IEPs are still participating in regular education classrooms and meet their requirements within the four-year time period, Shelly Fitzgerald said. Anna Fitzgerald has programming beyond her fourth year of high school, referred to as a 4 Plus Program.

On April 26, the NCSD Board of Education unanimously approved the second reading of the policy change (Code No. 505.7) in a 7-0 vote. School board member Travis Padget gave an “emphatic aye” when casting his vote. Shelly Fitzgerald was “so happy” to see the updated policy pass.

According to district documents, the original policy was adopted in 1989.

“This is more for Anna and for students with disabilities, with special needs,” Shelly Fitzgerald said. “She’s excited to be a senior and to do all things that seniors get to do. We understand she won’t be receiving a diploma. This is more of a celebration of four years of high school. We’re excited about it, too!”

Shelly Fitzgerald said it’s important for the district to be inclusive, and it’s also important for parents to advocate for their kids.

“We want the same experiences for Anna that other students get,” Shelly Fitzgerald said. “Now the policy is more inclusive of our students with special needs as we are moving — even as a society — to be more inclusive of our students. For us, we wanted the board to understand the reasoning.

“I just want what’s deserving for Anna and for the students coming up.”

Contact Christopher Braunschweig at 641-792-3121 ext. 6560 or cbraunschweig@newtondailynews.com

Christopher Braunschweig

Reporter with a strong penchant for community journalism.