What is an Occupational Diploma?

/ June 6, 2016

By Janet Shouse

About the Author

Janet smiling

Janet Shouse is a parent of a young adult with autism, and she is passionate about inclusion, employment of people with disabilities, medical issues related to developmental disabilities, supports and services, public policy, legislative initiatives, advocacy, and the intersection of faith and disability. She wears many hats at the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center, including one as a disability employment specialist for TennesseeWorks.

Our hope is that this weekly blog will offer information you want to know, so if you have a question you want answered about employment for people with disabilities or other mysteries of the world of work, please email me at janet.shouse@vumc.org.


Three years ago, the Tennessee General Assembly approved a bill to create an occupational diploma for students with disabilities. The other two diploma options in our state are a regular high school diploma or a special education diploma.

Many in the disability community had advocated for years for this third option, because for many students with disabilities a regular diploma, with all the standard high school graduation and testing requirements, is not attainable, even with accommodations and modifications. And unfortunately, a special education diploma does not provide much information to a future employer as to the skills and knowledge of the student. The occupational diploma is intended to have a stronger focus on vocational/career outcomes and may offer prospective employers more information about the abilities of the student who has received this diploma.

The occupational diploma is not, however, the equivalent of a regular high school diploma; a student receiving one is still not eligible for standard four-year university programs nor entrance into the military.

The occupational diploma is available to high school students with disabilities who have:

  • Not met the requirements for a regular high school diploma (full diploma)
  • Have satisfactorily completed an individualized education plan (IEP)
  • Have satisfactory records of attendance and conduct
  • Have completed the occupational diploma Skills, Knowledge and Experience Mastery Assessment (SKEMA), and
  • Have two years of paid or non-paid work experience as defined in the student’s IEP

(Please check out the SKEMA, because even if your student doesn’t choose to pursue the occupational diploma, the skills outlined are very useful for creating IEPs.)

Michelle Pittman

Michelle Pittman

I decided to find out more about the occupational diploma from a school perspective. I contacted Michelle Pittman, who is a special education specialist and transition coordinator for Knox County Schools, and she and Kristi Pell, a special education facilitator for Knox County Schools, were kind enough to provide their experience and insights.

Q. What year did your students first begin working on an occupational diploma?

A. KCS (Knox County Schools) was a part of the pilot implementation of the occupational diploma (2014-2015) and, at that time, we targeted one teacher who had one student who was a probable candidate. A select few began working on the occupational diploma for the 2015-2016 school year.

Q. How many students in your district have received an occupational diploma?

A. Three

Q. Do you feel like you received enough guidance and information to implement the framework (SKEMA)?

A. Yes, the great part about the SKEMA is that is truly intended to be individualized for each student. The SKEMA makes it easy to individualize.

Q. Is there a particular “type” of student whom you would recommend consider getting an occupational diploma?

A. Students who have occupational goals after high school, and already have good adaptive skills, but have reached their threshold being academically successful are good candidates for this diploma. (The decision to focus on the occupational diploma option may be made no sooner than the end of the student’s 10th-grade year, or two academic years prior to the student’s expected graduation/exit date.)

Q. When do you or your colleagues begin to talk with students and families about the possibility of the occupational diploma?

A. After a student’s 9th-grade year, the IEP team will closely review a student’s progress, and his/her transition goals. It becomes apparent for some students that more focused occupational training and preparation is needed. The IEP team would continue to collect data throughout the 10th-grade year and review the progress again by the end of the school year and may make a decision about the diploma path by that time.

Q. What would you say is the most appealing part for a student in working toward and/or having an occupational diploma?

A. The occupational diploma seems to fill a gap for some students. It helps us provide a continuum of services, allowing some students to focus on occupational skills and gain invaluable experience.

Q. What do you as a teacher find most appealing about the occupational diploma?

A. It creates structure for students whose program needs to be occupationally oriented. In the past, IEP teams have had to come up with their own structures and goals. This framework is very fitting for multiple situations.

Q. Do you have any recommendations for ways to have students get their two years’ worth of work experience?

A. Think outside the box! This framework allows so much creativity. Students should utilize their natural social resources and get input from families and friends regarding potential work experiences. We have had students use Work-Based Learning experiences, volunteer community sites, and in-school jobs.

Q. Have you been able to engage businesses to take part in the work experiences that students need?

A. Yes. Several businesses have been host sites to our non-paid vocational training experiences for many years now. On occasion, some have hired our graduates. It’s too early to tell an overall success that can be linked to the recipient of an occupational diploma.

Q. Were there any unintended consequences of implementing the occupational diploma?

A. We believe the SKEMA document has become an incredibly useful tool for teachers to use with their students as a way to identify what they need to be successful in post-school employment. Teachers have used it to create data sheets/checklists for their students, recognizing the important skill priority it emphasizes.

Q. What would you say to teachers whose students are thinking about the occupational diploma and who would be using the SKEMA for their students? Any words of wisdom?

A. We believe that high schools have to teach students to be ready for post-secondary options. Teachers work hard to implement IEPs and provide our students with a variety of experiences. However, as students get older, we have to look to what they will need beyond our school to be successful as an adult and prepared to face the many challenges of adulthood. The prioritizing of skills in the SKEMA can be a useful tool to help us focus our efforts and target the skills that are most important.

Thanks to Michelle and Kristi for taking the time to answer all my questions and helping me gain a better understanding of the occupational diploma.

I would also like to have a student’s perspective on this new diploma option. If anyone has a student or family members who might be willing to share their experiences, please ask them to contact me at janet.shouse@vumc.org.

Or you can contact Alison Gauld, behavior and low incidence disabilities coordinator for the Division of Special Populations, Tennessee Department of Education, at Alison.gauld@tn.gov. She’s the real expert on the SKEMA and the occupational diploma.

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