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Alternate Diploma v. Regular HS Diploma - Which is Better?
by Susan Bruce

“My child is preparing for 9th grade. She has an IEP. The school is recommending that we put her in an alternate diploma program. Is this a good idea?"

high school graduates

This is a decision that you need to consider very carefully. In my experience, these “alternate diplomas” are not worth the paper they are printed on. If your child plans to get further education after she graduates, she will find that a community college requires at least a GED. Most employers require a high school diploma, GED, or they ask prospective employees to work toward one of those.

Don’t settle for an “alternate" certificate or diploma. You need to have high expectations for your daughter. If you lower your expectations, you risk extinguishing all possibilities for her.

What can a parent do?

First, know what the IDEA says about high expectations in the Purposes section of the law.

“Almost 30 years of research and experience has demonstrated that the education of children with disabilities can be made more effective by having high expectations for such children and ensuring their access to the general education curriculum in the regular education classroom, to the maximum extent possible…” 20 U.S.C.1400 (c)(5)

This should be done in order for your child to -

“meet developmental goals and, to the maximum extent possible, the challenging expectations that have been established for all children; and

"be prepared to lead productive and independent lives, to the maximum extent possible.”

Second, you need to answer these questions.

  • Why does the IEP team believe your child cannot meet the standards to earn a regular high school diploma?
  • What supports and accommodations has the team provided to help your child earn a regular high school diploma?
  • What help does your child need so she can meet the same expectations as other students?
  • Can your daughter complete the requirements for a regular diploma by the time she is 21? A student with a disability can receive services until the age of 21 or until she graduates with a regular high school diploma, whichever comes first.
  • Will an “alternate diploma” allow your child to lead a productive and independent life?
  • Is the alternate diploma appropriate for your child’s level of functioning?

Third, consider using a transition plan to address her needs for a regular diploma.

Transition Planning

Your child's IEP should include transition services no later than the first IEP in effect when she turns 16. The age for a transition plan may be younger, depending on your state’s special education regulations.

Transition services are those services that will help your child make the transition into the adult world.

Transition services should:

  • Be designed with a results oriented process.
  • Focus on improving your child's academic achievement and functional performance so she can make the transition from school to work or further education.

Post school activities may include any of the following.

  • Postsecondary education (college)
  • Vocational education
  • Integrated employment
  • Continuing adult education (GED, perhaps)
  • Adult services
  • Independent living
  • Community participation

Any transition plan should include transition services based on her individual needs. The IEP team should consider her preferences, interests, and strengths. What does she want to do?

personal goals for transition planning

If your child wants to attend a college, she will need a regular high school diploma.

Transition services include the following.

  • Instruction (address deficit areas)
  • Related services
  • Community experiences
  • Development of employment and other post school living objectives
  • Acquisition of daily living skills, if appropriate

Transition services in the IEP must include:

  • Measurable postsecondary goals that are based on transition assessments related to training, education, employment, and (where appropriate) independent living skills; and
  • The transition services, including courses of study, she needs to help her reach those goals.

Transition services can include special education, if your child needs specially designed instruction and/or related services to benefit from these services.

When you think about transition planning, ask yourself these questions.

  • How does your child’s transition plan help her move from the world of school to the real world?
  • What are your child’s preferences?
  • What are your child’s strengths?
  • What does your child want to do after she graduates?
  • What does your child need in order to help her meet those goals?
  • Does your child need remediation in a specific area in order to meet these goals?
  • What tests and assessments did the school use?
  • Are the transition goals in the IEP measurable?
  • Where is the data?

IEP teams can develop and use transition plans to help students with disabilities meet the high expectations set for all students. As with every other special education issue, make yourself an expert.

Created: 01/12/11
Revised: 10/27/15

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Susan Bruce

Susan BruceSusan’s most relevant experience is as the mother of four, three of which are students with disabilities. Susan’s next most relevant experience is as a ten year parent advocate and trainer with South Carolina’s former Parent Training and Information Center, PRO*Parents of SC. Susan has trained over 5000 parents, attorneys and advocates during her tenure with PRO*Parents on virtually any topic that has to do with special education and civil rights law.

Susan’s passion for assisting parents and extensive knowledge of the practical application of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act along with other laws applying to children makes her a fierce advocate for students. The training she has received over the last ten years is second to none. Susan has trained under some the nation’s leading advocates and attorneys, such as Chris Ziegler Dendy, Rick Lavoie, Matt Cohen and Pete Wright of

A Board Member of COPAA (Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates) for 4 years and a member for 7 years, she serves as the board secretary as well as serving on COPAA's executive committee. She also sits on the media relations, advocate and conference committees. Susan has honed her skills by attending COPAA’s National Conference for the last 7 years, presenting sessions at the last 6 and was asked by COPAA to provide the two day advocate training at their preconference for the last 3 years. She has a certificate from the William and Mary School of Law Institute of Special Education Advocacy and holds certificates in non-profit management from Duke and Winthrop University. However, Susan believes that her expertise actually lies in a specialized field that in all actuality can only be obtained by hands on experience and is not taught in any university setting.

Susan continues to hone her skills by continually training, she believes that a vital part of advocacy lies in staying abreast of ever changing case law, scientific research and guidance from the US Department of Education and the Office of Civil Rights.
Susan is a published author, her articles on special education and Section 504 have been published by advocacy organizations all over the country.

Susan Bruce and Mary Eaddy receive ISEA CertificatesJuly 2012 - William and Mary Law School Institute of Special Education Advocacy

Susan Bruce receives their certificate from ISEA 2012 at the W&M Law School Institute of Special Education Advocacy for advanced advocates.

Contact information

864-305-9969 or

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