LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- By most accounts, Macy Knights is a typical teenage girl -- she's outgoing, loves fashion and has led an active social life during her time at Ballard High School.

But when she walked across the stage at Freedom Hall on Friday night at Ballard's commencement ceremonies, the 19-year-old who was born with Down syndrome accomplished something most other students with an intellectual disability are not able to do -- she graduated with a standard high school diploma.

"It feels great," Macy said with a huge smile as she held her diploma in her hand. "I did it."

Standard IQ tests typically score students with Down syndrome in the mild to moderate range of mental retardation, but as Macy proved to her family and teachers -- she is not your typical student. She has a higher IQ and worked hard to show everyone her true potential. 

"This is a great accomplishment,” said Terry Ray, the director of exceptional child education with Jefferson County Public Schools. "We are so proud of Macy and for her family and those at the school who have supported and helped her."

In Kentucky, a student with a disability can complete high school and follow the same course of study available to others.

However, it is up to a committee of people -- including school officials and the child's parents -- to decide whether each child with special needs graduates with a standard high school diploma or earns an alternative high school diploma.

The difference between the two is vast. A standard diploma means the student has completed all state and local requirements, while an alternative diploma involves a modified curriculum and individualized course of study.

The alternative diploma doesn't carry the same weight as the standard diploma. Having a standard diploma makes it easier for students to seek a college or advanced degree and opens the door for more job opportunities, said Diana Merzweiler, the executive director of Down Syndrome of Louisville who also sits on the exceptional child education council for JCPS.

“I think sometimes, school systems have a prescribed program for students who have learning differences,” Merzweiler said.  “A lot of times, all these students need is for their school to give them an opportunity to pursue higher level classes that enable them to graduate with a standard diploma.”

Ray said each child with special needs is assessed individually, with school officials and parents devising a plan to meet his or her needs and strengths.“It depends on each individual child,” Ray said. “As a district, we are committed to providing a high-quality education for every student.”

Halfway through Macy's high school career at Ballard, the decision was made by Macy's parents and school officials for her to earn a standard diploma.

"Macy decided she wanted to work hard and earn a diploma versus some of the other options we have here in Jefferson County," said Amy Meeron, Macy's guidance counselor at Ballard. "Throughout the past five years, she has worked very, very hard to earn her diploma. We've had lots of bumps and bruises and tears throughout the journey, but she has fought through all of those and come out on top."

It helped that Macy's parents, Frank and Jennifer Knights, were strong advocates for their oldest daughter.

“It has been a joint effort between us as her parents and all of her educators,” Jennifer Knights said. “Everyone who has touched her life has helped get her to where she is today.”

The Knights say they simply wanted to make sure that Macy was given every opportunity to excel to her highest ability. It's the same thing they wanted for their younger daughter, Megan, who graduated this year from Sacred Heart Academy and will attend Xavier University this fall.

“It wasn't always easy and there have been tears shed and there has been stress,” Jennifer Knights said. “But there is stress and tears shed with any teenager.”

And at the end of the day, Frank Knights said, it was up to Macy.

“It was Macy, it was all Macy,” he said. “It was us getting out of the way and letting her do her thing.”

Frank and Jennifer Knights admit it wasn't an easy thing to do.

“Like with any child, you want to be in the picture and it's hard to cut those strings,” Jennifer Knights said. “We had to trust the teachers and her counselors and know that they would do the best thing for Macy and make sure she was successful.”

Meeron said Macy had a strong desire to succeed and graduate with a standard diploma, even though it meant that some federal and state education benefits she could have received until she was 21 will cease upon her graduation.

“It was important for Macy, so it was important for us,” Meeron said.

Throughout her five years at Ballard, Macy attended the same classes as her non-disabled peers. She worked in the office and managed the cheerleading team. On the weekends, she works part-time at Clothes Mentor in St. Matthews .

“We wanted her to be nurtured and supported the entire time,” Meeron said. “The fact that she has Down syndrome didn't prevent her from doing anything that any of the other students would have had the opportunity to do.”

Meeron adds that it helped that Macy was so popular. During the Senior Walk at Ballard on Tuesday, she hugged numerous teachers and classmates, many who stopped to tell her how proud they were of her. After the commencement ceremony Friday, dozens of others hugged her some more.

“She earned our spirit award and that is something that was not just handed to her – she earned that,” Meeron said. “She has many friends who are really true friends who supported her throughout her five years at Ballard.”

Jennifer Knights said if it were up to Macy, she would stay in school until she is 50.

"She is a very confident young lady and was very comfortable at Ballard," Jennifer Knights said. "She loves everything about school. The other kids, for the most part, really took her under their wing. When I would pick her up from school, she often walked out like she owned the place. She had a really great high school experience."

Merzweiler said Macy is the first Down Syndrome of Louisville member to graduate high school with a diploma.

“She worked extremely hard to achieve this goal and we are so proud of her,” Merzweiler said. “We can't wait to see what her future holds.”

Jennifer Knights realizes the standard diploma track is not for every child who has special needs, but she says the message she would like to convey to other parents is simple.

“Don't count our kids out,” she said. “Each child has their strengths and weaknesses. We need to find their strengths and push them. It's just like you do with any other child. We need to make teachers, staff and employers aware that everyone has something to offer.”

Now that she's a high school graduate, Macy says she would like to attend college and maybe work in a school setting. Her parents say they are now focused on helping make that a reality for her.

“I love school and helping people,” Macy said. “I would like to help kids one day or maybe work in the school office.”

Macy also offers some advice to other students entering high school.

“Work hard, have fun and make good friends,” she said. “Mostly, just work really hard.”

RELATED | Class of 2015: Nearly 6,200 seniors expected to graduate from JCPS

Reporter Antoinette Konz can be reached at 502-585-0838 or @tkonz on Twitter.

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