This is the third story in an ongoing series called Education, Interrupted which looks at how school closures during the coronavirus crisis are affecting individual students. Sign up to receive a regular newsletter from the Great Divide team. You can reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org with story ideas and tips.
Willie Kincade’s long-anticipated walk across the graduation stage at Boston’s Jeremiah E. Burke High School this June has been 21 years in the making — spanning 18 years as a public school student, nine schools, and more teachers than his family can remember by name.
Kincade has autism. And unlike many people on the spectrum who fear large crowds and loud noises, he is known for his easygoing sociability; he longs to walk across the stage. He’d also enjoy belting out a Disney song if given the chance. (He sang the national anthem at his middle school graduation.)
For high school seniors across the country, school closures have brought angst and logistical hurdles, including concerns about prom, graduation, college delays, and much more. But for graduates with disabilities, who often attend public schools into their 20s, the impending transition — which disability rights advocates have long described as the “cliff” — will be especially fraught.
“All of the intensive support that had been there to build structure and skills — or even provide community and just fill a person’s day — those things just end,” said Claire Odom, senior program manager at the Workplace Initiative, who helps companies to better support workers with disabilities.
Now the cliff could turn even more treacherous. Tens of thousands of special education students across the country are likely to miss the final, crucial months of preparation, from entering job-support programs to figuring out how to navigate the city bus system.
In Massachusetts, students with disabilities must stop attending public school by their 22nd birthday, whether they are ready or not. Kincade, who turns 22 on Sept. 3, is one of 115 public school students who turn 22 sometime between mid-March and mid-October, according to a Boston district spokeswoman.
The state special education director, Russell Johnston, said he plans to brainstorm with other state officials about how to “make up for lost time” for students like Kincade. Until now, “our attention has been on how to get services for students right now,” Johnston said.
Even a seven-week school closure makes Kincade feel sad. “I think they should have stayed open,” he said. For now, he’s taking it one day at a time and, in keeping with his very literal nature, won’t grapple with a closure beyond the currently announced May 4 unless he has to. It’s the “day-to-day talking to teachers and friends that I miss,” he said.
He has a lot of blessings that make the crisis more bearable: supportive parents who inject as much structure into his life as possible; a teacher who reaches out often; and a comfort-level with change, owing largely to his long history of school-hopping.
Still, his family desperately wants to give the young man a well-deserved sense of closure and long-awaited celebration. They also hope to avoid making the “cliff” any steeper.
“School’s important, but it’s the life skill stuff that you take with you after school ends,” said his father, Mike Kincade. “We were just starting to ramp that up before all this happened.”
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Students with disabilities, who represent more than 20 percent of the district’s approximately 55,000 students, are especially vulnerable during the school closures.
For children with autism, a sudden change or loss of routine can be devastating, said Allison Doherty, a special education teacher at Boston’s Fenway High School who taught Kincade for three years at Urban Science Academy, one of his previous schools. “They need that structure; they need that routine,” she said.
Indeed, when Kincade learned schools would be shutting down, he survived by viewing it simply as another summer vacation — not a permanent rupture, his father said.
Many kids on the autism spectrum, including Kincade, crave social engagement in spite of their quirks and occasional antisocial behavior. Yet structured in-person gatherings, like school, are the only places where they easily find it.
“They are not going to seek out interaction in the absence of school because they don’t know how,” Mike Kincade said.
A week and a half ago, Willie Kincade had his first live Zoom meeting with his class — all young adults on the spectrum, many on the verge of aging out — and their teacher.
“It was so cool watching these kids log in,” Mike Kincade said. “Their faces lit up because they all missed each other. It was also sad because you realized they are really being isolated. Their only social place has been ripped out from under them.”
Except for class meetings, Willie Kincade’s only social contact these days is with a few close relatives. He lives with his mother, Lisa Kincade, and grandmother and sees his father several times a week. His mother tries to stick to something of a schedule. Willie sets the alarm for 6 every morning although he rarely needs it; he is up at dawn, regardless.
Kincade and his mother, who works in special education at a different school, try to exercise in the morning, whether taking a walk down the block or doing jumping jacks in the house. At 11 a.m. each weekday, they sit at the computer for remote learning — possibly a lesson in coin denominations or a virtual trip to a circus. In recent weeks, Kincade’s class has started occasional Zoom meetings, the highlight of his days.
Late afternoons often bring time for a nap and viewings of Kincade’s favorite movies, including “Mulan,” “Toy Story,” “Hercules,” and “TinkerBell.” (He loves singing TinkerBell’s "Fly To Your Heart'': Everywhere you go: Your soul will find a home; You’ll be free to spread your wings; Fly, you can fly to your heart.)
Doherty, who taught Kincade at Urban Science Academy, said the teenager impressed her with his music knowledge (“One time I was singing a song and he was like, ‘Is that Steve Winwood with the Spencer Davis Group?’”) and his understated sense of humor. Kincade hated the school pizza, but instead of simply saying that, he told people he couldn’t eat it because “it would make his voice squeaky,” Doherty recalled, chuckling.
“I’d love to go to a graduation party for Willie,” she added. “This was his last year, and he knows it. Now, it’s possibly ended, and with no good fanfare.”
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Kincade has dealt with the upheaval of the last month surprisingly well, his parents say, in part because he had changed schools so often — the Burke is his ninth. The frequent changes speak to the dearth of options for many disabled students: Some of the classrooms were too challenging, others not nearly challenging enough.
The family had a very quick visit to one school that relegated special education students to the basement and where the vice principal said she couldn’t imagine students like Kincade going to college. (Kincade hopes to attend a program for students with disabilities at a local community college.)
At another school, Mildred Avenue Middle, Kincade faced the opposite problem, classes that overwhelmed him. He attended class with general education students as well as those with special needs. When he grew anxious, there was not always someone available to calm the 12-year-old, so he paced the classroom, disrupting classmates. “It wasn’t right for me,” he recalled.
But most of Kincade’s memories are good ones. Asked about the best part of the last 18 years, he rattled off a rapid-fire list of teachers’ names: Mr. Estee, Ms. Larson, Ms. Russo, Ms. Clancy, Ms. Allison.
In fact, he loved one school so much, Urban Science Academy, that he testified before the school committee as part of an effort to keep the full community together.
In halting testimony, Kincade implored: “I hope wherever you move us that we all stick together.”
When the school closed, most of the teachers and students in Kincade’s program were sent to the Burke. And Kincade settled in for a final year in a new environment.
When the mayor announced schools would close last month, Kincade had just started a new round of work-study at a Goodwill center, where he and classmates help sort and put away clothes. He had also restarted what’s known as “travel training” in which a state aide takes walks and trips on the bus and MBTA with Kincade. (He especially loves going to the Central Library in Copley Square.)
Mike Kincade said it’s important that Willie get the training from someone who’s not in his family. “We can’t do it because Willie will wait for us to cue him: Willie, you need to give someone space; Willie, we are getting off at the next stop; Willie, you can’t break out into song.”
The pandemic also led to cancellation of a crucial meeting with Kincade’s transition team to iron out details about his graduation, next steps to getting him into a community college and vocational program, and how to find him a job with the right amount of support. The meeting will still happen — virtually— but now there are many more open questions: Will there be a graduation ceremony? With so much time away from school, will the young man be ready to transition to college as previously planned? What employment programs for adults with disabilities will still exist, and in what form?
“In-person job coaching is just not possible right now,” said Odom, with the Workplace Initiative. She fears that, with the unemployment rate so high, job opportunities for the disabled might be more limited.
Kincade is so sociable and has made so much progress that his family does not fear a lasting regression. But his father knows there might be delays that could take an emotional toll.
“It’s not totally right to say everything was put on pause because pause implies that you can hit a button and start again,” he said. “We can’t be the only ones who are in a situation where we don’t know what is going to happen with our son.”
The family takes comfort in the knowledge that, one way or another, Kincade will graduate later this spring. There might not be crowds, a big party, or a walk across a stage in a cavernous auditorium. But there will be a nice dinner, a celebration with those who know and love him, and, undoubtedly, plenty of heartfelt singing.
Sarah Carr has covered education for the last 20 years, reporting on battles over school vouchers, efforts to educate China’s massive population of migrant children, and the explosion of charter schools in New Orleans.