Moving forward with college and careers in special education
Transition planning for special education students has evolved so that the activities students participate in now mirror more closely mainstream college- and career-prep programs.
Students learn valuable soft skills for the workplace through internships at places such as local hospitals and school cafes. They also take courses at local colleges to prepare for higher education.
“The ideal scenario is that special needs students don’t notice much upheaval in their lives when they leave school and enter adulthood,” says David Test, professor of special education at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. “The best transition is a seamless one.”
Students are also more involved in the IEP process to ensure that transition planning incorporates their own interests and post-graduation goals. And school administrators now work more closely with outside agencies and community organizations to further support the students’ shift to a productive life after high school.
While the years after the 2008 recession had not been particularly good for innovative transition programming, funding and interest in doing more for special ed students seem to have rebounded, Test says.
Here are some districts that are making a difference.
Hannibal Public School District
B.E.S.T. (Basic Employment Skills Training)—career readiness program
Three Hannibal educators traveled about 100 miles to Columbia Public Schools, also in Missouri, to learn how the special needs students there participate in hospital internships. “We left Columbia pretty motivated and excited about how we were going to get a similar program started in Hannibal,” says Brock Sousa, special services instructor for Hannibal Public Schools. “That was just 18 months ago, but it’s really where the partnership and the B.E.S.T. program started.”
Not to say a new program—even when there’s a blueprint—just launches itself. First, the high school principal, Ted Sampson, and the district superintendent, Susan R. Johnson, had to get buy-in from Hannibal Regional Hospital. “They were receptive, but we had to show them how exactly it would work,” says Sampson.
In particular, once hospital administrators understood that the students could be potential employees for the hospital or other community businesses or organizations, they were willing to give it a try.
The first group of students was carefully selected. They had to have an IEP and have all of their academic credits completed. Most important, they had to be motivated, and the students, their families and teachers had to agree they were up to the challenges that lay ahead.
So how does the program work? Four students report to high school by 7:45 a.m., where they change into work uniforms, and then ride to Hannibal Regional. By 8 a.m., they’re in a hospital classroom, where Sousa provides instruction on soft skills, such as decision-making and conversation, or the students use Chromebooks to practice filling out job applications and making résumés.
Sousa, who is also a driver’s ed instructor, works with each student to get their driver’s permit, so they’ll be able to get to work on their own after graduation.
“Our assumption is that we’ll adjust the classroom instruction each year based on the needs of the students,” says Sousa.
By 9 a.m., the students head to work in nutritional services, housekeeping and maintenance. “They report to their managers and then follow the routines of the work shift,” says Sousa. “So they’re all eating lunch at different times, and they have very different responsibilities.”
By 1:30 p.m., they clock out and return to class to do a daily wrapup, in which they discuss workday victories and challenges before traveling back to the high school.
Job coaches, a linchpin of the program, work through Learning Opportunities Quality Works and are paid for by Marion County Services for the Developmentally Disabled and County Connections. The school district juggled resources to allow Sousa to be on-site when needed, and the class fundraised for uniforms.
After one semester, students were mastering skills at an impressive rate. “The interns are exceeding our expectations,” says Sousa. “They are further along than we ever anticipated.”
The students are gaining so much work experience—for example, with waxers, buffers and other maintenance equipment—that Superintendent Johnson says they may be more qualified than the average applicant for certain custodial jobs. Next year, the district hopes to expand the program to eight or 10 students.
“These are students who are most likely going to be living in our community for their entire lives, so it’s exciting to figure out ways they can contribute and be productive,” Johnson says. “With this experience, I’d be very comfortable having them employed in our school district someday.”
Boston Public Schools
KEE (Knowledge. Enrichment. Engagement.) transitional program—college readiness program
Advocates have recognized that soft skills, such as time management, organization and communication, can be the most challenging barriers for special needs students who have the desire and intellectual capability to go to college.
One remedy is to give special needs students as much exposure as possible to a college setting, says Cindie Neilson, assistant superintendent for special education at Boston Public Schools. Particularly promising is the district’s KEE partnership with Roxbury Community College, which began in spring 2018.
About 12 special needs students, ages 18 to 22, spend 9 a.m. to noon at the college, four days per week. The program blends functional academics with direct instruction of life skills and vocational training in internships at the campus coffee shop, cafeteria, print shop and elsewhere.
Students have to apply to both Roxbury College and KEE.
“Part of the program includes learning all those really important skills that any college student might need—how to advocate for yourself, how to deal with social pressure and how to talk to professors,” says Neilson.
The students receive one college credit because KEE folds in a college experience class, a modified version of a class all Roxbury students take. Ultimately, the program—which can last up to two years—prepares students to take additional college classes, though not all will continue with higher education, says Roni Caulfield, director of KEE.
“Two semesters in and I’d say we’re pretty successful,” says Caulfield. “We have at least four out of the 12 students already successfully taking at least one additional college class.”
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The students have also launched their own Japanese anime club on campus. KEE students serve as board members, and membership is open to all students.
Neilson calls the cost to the district—about $300 per student per semester—a bargain. Caulfield and the district are pursuing additional funding in hopes of expanding KEE.
Cleveland County Schools
Cleveland County, N.C.
Future Ready OCS (Occupational Course of Study)—career readiness program
The Future Ready OCS program serves about 130 students with both intellectual and adaptive skill challenges. The academic coursework, which may be modified, encompasses all the requirements needed to obtain a high school diploma in North Carolina.
In addition to academics, students take at least six credit hours of training in soft skills in which they focus on everything from exploring their interests to conversation skills and how to apply for a job. And students get the added benefit of participating in on- and off-campus occupational training that’s based on interests and aptitudes identified through transition assessments and evaluations.
The students can then participate in job shadowing, simulated work settings, and school-based enterprises such as the coffee shop or craft store.
“We’re often able to secure internships for students, and ultimately, many are placed in part-time jobs,” says Nellie P. Aspel, the district’s executive director of exceptional children. The district’s vocational rehabilitation counselors—who function as career counselors and job placement specialists—team up with classroom teachers, says Aspel.
“The counselors help with transition planning, developing individual work plans, and even developing relationships with employers,” Aspel says.
The teacher-career coach combo has been so successful with exceptional students that the district looks forward to expanding the concept. Thanks to a workforce investment opportunity grant, the district is including career coaches in all schools. “Additional coaches will provide lessons to not only our students in the occupational course of study, but also to all students in the district,” says Aspel.
Victoria Clayton is a freelance writer in Southern California.