On January 28, 2019, we had our last IEP meeting, but at the time I wasn’t sure if it would be. Our son was 19 and finishing his senior year of high school, and we were faced with a choice. Our school district offers a transition program that helps students get job experiences and identify and seek job opportunities between the time they complete high school and turn 22. Our educators were really excited about the transition program, and many of our friends had used it with success. However, Andy already had a job at our local grocery store, so we were leaning toward going in a different direction after graduation: working more hours at the grocery store, serving a church mission (which is typical for young people in our faith), and setting up a photography business. When we asked Andy what he wanted to do, he was very clear that he was ready to be done with school, and we became fairly certain that it would be our final IEP.
Over the years, we’d had many IEPs. Some were heart-wrenching and defeating, like his Kindergarten IEP when we were outnumbered and cornered about enrolling him in a self-contained setting until we were able to provide videos and a testimonial from his general education pre-K teacher about his positive response to inclusion. Many were celebratory and filled with mutual admiration among teachers who were creative, determined, and loving. But almost all held a degree of stress and tension caused by bad earlier experiences, minor disagreements about the best approaches, and the inherent nervousness when advocating for a beloved child.
So, when we gathered at that final meeting, fairly certain it would be our last, I felt a combination of profound relief, gratitude, and joy. I thought I might feel sad or even scared, but I really didn’t. It was such a relief to know that we were done with any tense conversations, and we could just focus on our gratitude for all the high school teachers had done. We brought a plateful of biscuits and jam to celebrate with the IEP team, and we talked about how much we appreciated each other and what supports needed to be in place for Andy to accomplish his transition goals. Now that doesn’t mean the relationships had been perfect through the years as we negotiated academic vs. vocational time and inclusion in more classes, but we all knew we had Andy’s best interests at heart, and we all respected and valued each other and knew his future looked promising.
Here are a few lessons I gleaned from that experience:
- Many families, individuals, and professionals have real wounds and scars from previous wrecks along the way. I didn’t realize how much that stayed with me until I experienced that relief of the last IEP meeting, so it’s important to give each other grace. It’s also important to show gratitude to those allies who truly love our students even if we may sometimes disagree.
- There is no “one right path” that everyone must travel. The preferences, interests, and opportunities for the person with a disability should be the guide. Some of Andy’s friends have stayed in the public school system until they aged out, and they flourished in the transition program. Many have recently gotten jobs as baristas and employees at Home Depot and cafeteria employees at local elementary schools. Others decided to graduate or complete school with their peers because they were ready to work right away. Meanwhile, others have pursued our local post-secondary education program right out of high school or after completing the transition program, It all depends on what the student wants to do and their talents and the skills they want to learn.
- The future isn’t so scary when you feel prepared and have a plan. When Andy was little, parents of older kids used to talk about falling off the cliff when public school ended, but I didn’t feel that way because our transition team had a solid plan. Andy would apply for his 2-year church mission after graduating where he would work 2-3 days per week at a food pantry. Then he would continue working at the grocery store, and he would start a photography business with his dad the other days. After completing the church mission in December 2021, he will apply for a post-secondary education program studying photography at our local college. So far, aside from several months out because of COVID, the plan has worked really well.
How did you feel heading into your final IEP meeting, or how do you think you will feel? What have you learned over the years?