Illinois lawmakers passed two pieces of legislation in late May that aim to expand equity and fairness for special needs students.

Then on July 28, Gov. JB Pritzker signed them into law. Now, special education students will be able to continue attending school through the end of the school year in which they turn 22.

The package of legislation also allows special needs students who recently turned 22 and were affected by COVID-19 to remain eligible for educational services up to the end of the regular 2021-22 school year.

“It doesn’t happen to general education students, and it shouldn’t happen to our students with special needs either,” Pritzker said in a news release announcing he signed the bills. “In Illinois, it will never happen again. We all have something to celebrate today.”

Before this signing, a special needs student in an Illinois high school program would be required to leave the program the day before their 22nd birthday — even if their birthday fell in the middle of the school year. Now, students turning 22 at any time during an academic year can finish out their high school experience with classmates.

The bills became effective immediately and are starting with this brand new school year.

Local effect

This came as a relief to Terina Taylor, mother of Manteno High School student Zack Taylor, who will be turning 22 in February.

“He’ll get to complete the year in a natural transition instead of breaking it off in February like, ‘OK, you’re done,’” Terina said.

The Taylor family had been preparing Zack for his possible completion in February as they couldn’t be sure the legislation would pass. After the bills were signed, they were able to share with him the good news he could finish out the full school year.

Similar to many parents of special needs children, Terina and her husband rely on the school program to be a place for Zack to go while they are both at work. The extension of Zack’s final high school year gives them more time to prepare for the next step.

“As parents of someone with special needs, you know what’s coming, but I feel like this part of the journey is getting harder,” Terina said. “There’s help along the way, but we have to find it more than having it available during the school day.”

The extension also allows for Zack to finish out the school year with his younger brother who is a senior at Manteno High School. The brothers ride to school together each morning.

Continued support

This is seen as a benefit to special education professionals, such as Manteno CUSD 5’s director of special education, Erin Ruff, who describes the bill as “a continuation of support.”

Ruff said the extension “allows the school district staff to continue the relationships that have been built with the families and the student, as well as providing continued support and assisting in the transition to independence.”

The director shared that this transition is easier to do at the end of a school year. The benefits of the law change also will be felt by Kankakee School District 111’s transition programming staff.

Karen C. Brown, educational consultant, and Millicent Griffin, supervisor of student support services, are looking forward to having all students remain through the end of the school year.

“[The law] will allow students to maintain their structure, in their daily life and their growth, and they are able to continue to work on their skill development to enhance the skills they were working on previously,” said Griffin, who noted this helps make up in-class and community time that was lost due to last year’s remote learning.

“I’m really happy about this shift that Illinois has taken,” Brown said. “I really think it helps the students’ social and emotional being, and gives them more time to be connected to their community. It’s a benefit to everyone.”

The district works with students and families about planning for post-high school life. Brown said that parents are connected with various agencies in the community that can help serve students after they exit from the high school or transition program.

Along with the leadership and support of Dr. Genevra Walters, the district is working on making services for special needs students even stronger.

“With our minds and new visions and new thoughts and new people coming into the district, we definitely want to enhance [the program],” Griffin said. “I think that’s aligning with the natural progression with where the board and the district see the students being first.”