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Pennington family 'excited' with changes to Billings school district's age-out policy

Posted at 6:09 PM, Apr 19, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-20 11:38:15-04

After the Billings School Board voted Monday night to allow students up to the age of 20 to graduate, the family of West High student Emily Pennington- who fought for the change so she could graduate with her class- praised the action.

“It was a long process, but it’s definitely been worth it,” mother Jana Pennington said Tuesday.

After months of uncertainty, the Penningtons said they can finally relax.

“We are really, really excited,” Pennington said.

The amendment of the policy could pave the way for other students in similar situations in Billings to graduate.

“Now, other kids that need that additional year, typical kids, regular ed students will have that opportunity to stay,” Pennington said.

Up until Monday, the district has had an age-out policy that only allowed students up to age 19 to graduate. The change means the district could be left with an annual budget shortfall of more than $3 million.

Emily, who has Down syndrome, is just happy to learn she’ll get to continue her education.

“She is just rearing up, trying out for cheerleading again, excited to have her senior year,” Pennington said.

Outside of Billings, other parents of students with special needs have gone though similar struggles.

Columbus resident Chanese Garcia has ar 19-year-old daughter, Olivia, who has Angelman syndrome and epilepsy.

“For her, it takes years to learn basic things,” Garcia said.

She went through a similar process last year with the Columbus school district.

“As special needs parents, we have it hard already, it’s very hard and difficult,” Garcia said.

She had asked for another school year for her daughter.

“I was just asking for another year for her 'cuz she needs to be socialized or she becomes depressed and aggressive,” Garcia said.

It was a long process, but Olivia was able to attend Columbus High School at the age of 19.

“I literally spent the whole summer and the first three months of school, fighting and calling OPI (Office of Public Instruction),” Garcia said.

Both families believe the right decision has been made but say even more needs to be done.

“It never should have been that hard for it to even come to that point,” Garcia said.

The Penningtons are grateful to be advocates for students with special needs across the state.

“Hopefully we can prevent this from happening to other parents with children with special needs in the state of Montana, cause it just really isn’t right,” Pennington said.

Related: Billings West High students walk out of school in solidarity for Emily Pennington
Related: Billings trustee, state superintendent talk about funding for HB 233 changes