The transition to adulthood can be an exciting, yet scary experience for young adults and their parents. For students with special needs the transition may be even more nerve-racking.
Just as any teen longs for independence, students with special needs are no different. Though some students may be more limited than others, does its best to offer special needs students the tools needed to be productive, happy members of the community.
“Parents of students with disabilities are very anxious about sending them into transition,” said Diane Fleischel, District 204’s director of student services. “We want to move them out and into the community.”
Through its STEPS program (Supported Training Experiences Post Secondary) students in District 204 are given the opportunity to transition from the classroom into real living situations. Also, allowing parents to become comfortable with the transition.
“Some students are really ready to leave, and others need more family support,” said Laura Bailey, STEPS student services coordinator.
Just as some students are more mature at graduation than others, the same might be said for special education students. What is different, are the skills students may need to learn to be successful outside of a classroom environment and the level of independence that is possible, Bailey and Fleischel said.
Planning for a special education student’s post-secondary outcomes begins when a child turns 14 ½ years old and the outcomes become part of the students Individualized Education Program, Fleischel explained, and Bailey added that it can’t happen early enough.
The three areas key to the post-secondary outcomes are: 1) Education and training; 2) Employment; 3) Individual living skills.
The pair explained that when a students hits that 14 ½ mark, the IEP team begins to consider if a student might be able to attend college, vocational school, obtain a full or part-time job as well as pursue other opportunities that are life affirming.
Some special education students go through four years of high school and graduate. If it is deemed appropriate, other students needing or wanting more transitional preparation participate in STEPS, Fleischel said. Students in the program are allowed to participate until the day before they turn 22. Once they exit the program they receive a diploma from the high school they attended.
Unlike a high school with students moving from class to class, schedules are much different and programs varied. On a recent visit to the program site, the old Wheatland Elementary School at Route 59 and 103rd Street, a group of students was preparing for a yoga/fitness class in one room, while in another room a group of students was learning how to budget for an art project.
The federal government mandates that school districts provide the transitional services, but over the years the district’s program has evolved, Fleischel said. Early on it was more about employment, but it has moved on to include other life skills.
Another thing that has changed are the number of students involved in the program, Fleischel said. Roughly 10 or 11 years ago there were maybe five students in the program. Today there are 63, she said.
Many of the students participate in job training programs and are placed in jobs at the 35 participating local businesses, which range from restaurants to hospitals and assisted living facilities to grocery stores, Fleischel said. Some of the participating businesses include and the .
A student may learn how to clean tables in a cafeteria. Once the student has mastered a specific skill they may move on to learn other skills.
“We look at strengths and interests when placing students,” Bailey said. “Then increasing job skills at those sites.”
Some of the work sites were so impressed with the students, they were hired on full-time, Bailey said. Though, with the struggling economy finding places for the students to learn skills and gain work experience has been more challenging.
Some of the students are also learning job skills in district buildings, in positions ranging from clerical to custodial, Fleischel said.
The program also teaches students the soft skills that others might take for granted, skills such as how to fill out a job or college application, how to dress for a job, how to interact with others on the job, or how to approach someone for the first time in a business situation.
Through a micro-enterprise the STEPS program started, students learn skills while creating and selling items, such as school spirit jewelry, note cards and dog toys, Fleischel said.
To live a full and rich life, students are also taken out into the community to learn how to grocery shop, how to budget, to enjoy social recreation, such as spending time at a health club, restaurant or the library.
“I think they feel like the rest of us—look at what I can do,” Bailey said. “They get to do what they see others do.”
The STEPS program also offers a variety of groups to meet special needs, such as a men’s club, a women’s empowerment group and other social groups that help students interact and learn problem solving and coping skills, Fleischel said. And, every month there is a community service project that allows students to give back.
Fleischel said the students often have the same stresses any young adult does, like dealing with girlfriend/boyfriend issues and having enough money to go out.
The program staff includes five special education teachers, a speech pathologist, social worker, job coaches, occupational therapists and physical therapists along with a teaching assistant who are working to see that the students needs are met and that they are prepared for the next step in life, Fleischel said.
“The students want to do what others are doing and parents want that too,” Bailey said.
If you are interested in partnering with the district for job skill training contact Diane Fleischel at email@example.com.