Erin McLaughlin and her experience as a cheerleader at Laurel High School in Laurel. Video by Jen Rynda, Baltimore Sun Media Group

Erin McLaughlin has always loved to dance.

Her favorite movie is "High School Musical," and it's not uncommon for her to re-enact a scene from the film at a moment's notice.

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So when it came time for cheerleading tryouts at Laurel High School, Erin's parents, Jackie and Mike McLaughlin, were sure it would be a good opportunity for their sophomore daughter, who was born with Down syndrome, which can affect mental abilities and physical development.

The McLaughlins said the Laurel cheerleading squad welcomed their daughter with open arms.

"The biggest thing is they [girls on the team] recognized the difference, but they didn't treat her different. They treated her as one of theirs," Mike McLaughlin said.

Erin's experience on the cheerleading squad is reflective of her overall experience at Laurel High over the past two years, according to her parents.

"She rarely has a bad day," Jackie McLaughlin said. "She's a happy person, she really is."

Mike McLaughlin said he believes that school staff has done a good job in supporting Erin, especially in the face of multiple reforms, such as Common Core and PARCC.

Mercy Olumoya, a special education teacher at Laurel High, said Erin is a student who is "very friendly and full of life."

"In my class, she just can't sit down," Olumoya said. "She wants to be a part of everything we do."

Erin, who works with a dedicated aide, has matured greatly in just one year and takes a number of classes with students who do not have special needs, according to Olumoya.

Tiffóny Taylor, coach of the cheerleading team, said Erin brings an "awesome spirit" to the team and stole her heart on the first day of tryouts.

"She's always giving me her best, and sometimes coaches think the best means skill, but she gives me her best personally," Taylor said. "She tries no matter what the task is, she is not afraid of anything. If we're doing it, she does it."

What's next?

While Erin's experiences at Laurel High have been positive, her parents will soon be faced with the dilemma of what comes after high school, when there is no structured environment for their daughter.

Erin is not on track to receive a diploma or any type of alternative diploma. Instead, she will receive a Maryland High School Certificate of Completion, which recognizes special needs students who have completed an education program, but cannot meet the requirements for a diploma.

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The McLaughlins are not expecting Erin to get back on a diploma track before graduating and are nervous that this may be an obstacle to Erin finding success after high school, since nearly every job now requires a high school diploma.

"I worry about it a lot," Jackie McLaughlin said. "What is she going to do with her life, what is she going to find to be excited about, something that she is going to want to get up every morning and go do."

Maryland does not have an alternate diploma option, according to Karen Andrews, coordinating supervisor of Prince George's County Public Schools' Department of Special Education.

The decision to have a student with special needs work toward a diploma or certificate of completion is a year-to-year decision up to the individualized education plan team, or IEP team, which includes the parent and educators, Andrews said.

The decision to award a student with disabilities a certificate of program completion is not made until after the beginning of the student's last year in high school, unless the student participates in the Alternate Maryland School Assessment Program, she added.

Regarding Erin being shifted back to a diploma track, Olumoya left the door open.

"It depends on the parent and the kid," she said. "When the kid is motivated and the parent won't give up, I've seen things happen."

One option for Erin after she graduates high school at age 21 could be the SUCCESS Program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County's Shriver Center, Maryland's first four-year postsecondary education program for students with intellectual disabilities.

The program, now in its first year, is open to recent graduates who exited high school with a certificate of program completion. It is a non-credit, non-degree program that gives students with intellectual disabilities a college experience with their peers.

But due to budget constraints, there's no certainty the program will continue next year.

Another option for the McLaughlins could be the Transitioning Youth Initiative through the Arc of Prince George's County. This program offers employment services and day programs through the Developmental Disabilities Administration.

Jessica Neely, the division director of day and outreach services at the Arc, advises parents of children with a disability to take advantage of all the networking and informational opportunities available to them.

"You can imagine, when a family has a loved one with a serious disability, it can fell very isolating," she said.

Universal Design for Learning

As Erin moves through high school, the McLaughlins would prefer more assistive technology use for her in the classroom, particularly an iPad, because they believe it keeps her engaged in her studies.

One way the Prince George's County School System is accomplishing that goal is through a principle of Universal Design for Learning – more new technology in the classroom.

Defined as a set of principles for curriculum development that give all individuals equal opportunities to learn, Universal Design for Learning is something the McLaughlins strongly support.

In 2010, Maryland established a UDL Task Force to explore the incorporation of UDL principles into the state education system and Prince George's now incorporates the UDL guidelines and principles into the curriculum for all courses, according to Andrews.

"Technology resources have been greatly expanded in recent years, making it possible for teachers to present content in a variety of engaging media formats and for students to demonstrate their learning in new and innovative ways," she said.

For Mike McLaughlin, that's a step forward.

"We've grown up in a system that has a rigid curriculum and the student is expected to bend to the curriculum," McLaughlin said. "UDL says no, make the curriculum flexible for each student and when that takes place, that opens up a whole new idea of learning together."

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