Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Life after high school. Easy transition, right? Transition Cliff?

Life after high school.  Every kid is counting the years, weeks, days.  But as someone who is differently abled, what does lile after high school mean?  A job, college?  What about community support?  What about a safe place to live?  Parent wonder what will happen to their child after they "age out" of the programs offered in schools.  I am not worried about my son, since we will always be there for him.  I wonder what happens to children that do not have or want the support of their families?  What happens when funding for government programs for these folk is cut?  What other options are there?  I do not know the answers to these questions and it concerns me.

Read on to learn about what is happening in Minneapolis.  

June 04, 2012
Sam Hesla loves basketball, tennis and karate. He DJs at weddings and high school graduations. The 21-year-old hates the idea that his sister, who is two years younger than him, might move out of his mom’s house first.
Hesla has Down syndrome, and although he’s broken many of the stereotypes associated with the disability, he may never live entirely independently. Housing is just one of many details he and his family are grappling with as he graduates from Minneapolis Public Schools’ Transition Plus program, designed for 18- to 21-year-olds with disabilities.

Hesla is in the middle of what some experts call the “transition cliff,” a time in the life of a young person with a disability when they leave the hyper-structured universe of public special education and enter a much less supportive adult world.
Hesla is leaving Minneapolis Public Schools’ Transition Plus program just as the district is preparing to take a hard look at how it readies students with disabilities for adult life. Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson has committed to forming a task force examining what the district’s goal of career and college readiness means for special education students.
“It’s a recognition that something significant needs to be done to improve transition services,” said school board member Carla Bates. “With 19 percent of our population in special education we really can’t seriously think about closing the achievement gap without addressing special education issues.”
Federal law mandates that public school districts help students with disabilities plan for adulthood starting at age 14, and that districts continue to provide special education to students who need it until they’re 21. Minneapolis complies with the law by providing advising to 14 to 18-year-olds in high school, and offering classes, post-secondary supports and work experiences to 18 to 21-year-olds in Transition Plus.
Transition Plus programs are tasked with an enormous challenge: to launch students with wide-ranging disabilities into a society that is in many ways ill-equipped to absorb them. Some students call the program life-changing, but a handful of vocal parents, including Hesla’s mom, Jaimie Bennett, say it falls short of pushing all students towards an adult life that is as independent as possible.
How it works
Transition Plus, like all the district’s special education programs, serves students with a huge range of needs – from individuals who have the mental capacity of a three-month-old to students who will eventually be competitively employed or finish college.
To qualify for special education, students must fall into one of 13 disability categories. Every special education student has an IEP, or Independent Education Program, which is developed with input from teachers, social workers, parents and usually the student.
The decision to enter Transition Plus is made by the IEP team at the end of high school. A transition student might already have the credits they need to graduate but lack the skills required to live independently, find a job or go on to a post-secondary program. Entering the transition program requires the student to abstain from taking a diploma.
What students get from Transition Plus depends on their IEP. Each includes goals – some as simple as learning to maintain a checkbook or show up to work on time, others as big as college acceptance. Graduating from Transition Plus means fulfilling credit requirements and IEP goals. Some students attend for six months, others for three years. This year Transition Plus served 300 to 375 students at any given time.
Students might combine classes in math, reading or college readiness with courses in basic cooking, finance management or personal empowerment. Classes have teacher to student ratios no higher than 1:15. Students sit side-by-side with classmates whose physical, emotional, learning or developmental disabilities may bear no resemblance to their own.
A student might additionally spend four hours a week in rotating internships in fields like childcare, food service or building maintenance . At the Transition campus they might work in the school’s PAES (Practical Assessment Exploration System) lab, practicing simple tasks associated with different career fields. The school also has on-site work placements where students reprogram computers, use digital media or build bikes.
Students spend Fridays in the community with their advisory group. They might visit a college, look at community housing resources or even go to Valley Fair.
“It’s all so important, because what our students need as much as a job is what are they going to do in their free time?” said Doug Larison, a teacher at the school.
“No Problem. We can get you that.”
Travis MacRae said when he was in high school, he was the type of guy who would beat up teachers. “I hated school,” he said. He entered Transitions Plus homeless and with a laundry list of diagnoses ranging from Emotional and Behavioral Disorders (EBD) to a math learning disability.
He also had a desire to do more than just get a GED; he wanted a high school diploma and the life skills to eventually earn a college degree and support a family.
“T-plus said, ‘Yeah, we can get you that,’” he said. MacRae graduated Friday, too. He’s planning to go to college to be a heavy-duty technician, to work in construction and eventually enter the military. Now, he said, his teachers tell him the only disability they see is his trouble with math.
“I can’t tell you how many times people come in and say, ‘I can’t believe they’re doing that,’” said teacher MaryAnn Sulik. She and other Transition Plus staff said they love their work at the school. Multiple teachers went so far as to say it’s the best job they’ve ever had.
Two graduations
A point of contention for parents like Bennett is the division of students into “first floor” and “second floor” classrooms. Students who will eventually live independently or with minimal support are placed in the Next Step program, housed on the second floor of the campus near Powderhorn Park. Students who will need supervision throughout their adult life are placed in the Dimensions program on the first floor. Another campus at Minneapolis Community and Technical College works with students taking college-level courses through Minnesota’s Post Secondary Enrollment Option.
The division allows the school to provide varying levels of support according to student needs, but it’s problematic to Bennett, whose son sits on the line between the first and second floor.
When he started at Transition Plus three years ago, Hesla was sent to the first floor. Bennett didn’t like what she saw. She didn’t think the first floor classes were rigorous enough to challenge her son. She visited the upstairs programs and convinced staff to let Hesla move up.
Program director Colleen Schatz said that kind of flexibility is much more common now than it once was. This year the school implemented a scheduling system that allows any student access to any class in the building, and it eliminated a program for students with EBD, integrating them into the rest of the building.
Even so, Bennett regrets that last Friday Hesla, who is now considered a second-floor student, didn’t graduate alongside his first-floor girlfriend, who also has Down syndrome. She graduated on Friday, too, but in a ceremony separate from Hesla’s.
To Transition Plus staff the division of graduations is practical. Seven-year Transition Plus staff member Beverly Hermanstorfer remembers when the school used to have one graduation ceremony. “It was crazy,” she said.
Keeping track of the more vulnerable students among a crowd of very excited families and students was difficult. It took longer for students with more severe disabilities to cross the stage, and people got impatient.
This year 100 students graduated from the second floor, 30 from the first floor. Now, the morning ceremony for upstairs kids can comfortably be a rowdy, high-school style graduation, and the afternoon downstairs ceremony can be more intimate. Staff say most parents and students prefer it that way.
But to Bennett, the division is symbolic and painful, reflecting a system that she felt often bypassed the needs of her son.
Continuing challenge
“We still have a lot of room to grow,” Schatz said. Integration is just one issue. How to provide meaningful job experiences and college supports are two other challenges the task force will take on
Staff said it’s challenging to convince businesses to host meaningful internships for Transition students. Project SEARCH, entering its second year facilitating yearlong internships at Children’s Hospital for Transition students, has been lauded by local advocates as an important step towards fulfilling that need, but so far it only has the capacity to work with 12 students.
“The business world y just isn’t there for us,” Hermanstorfer said.
Schatz struggles when she hears school board members say that Transition Plus needs to prepare students with intellectual disabilities for college. She said there aren’t many college-level programs appropriate for students with more than mild intellectual disabilities. In mainstream programs, she notices many colleges hesitate to accept students with intellectual disabilities, fearing that they will have to “dumb down” content.
“I think colleges have a lot of work to do, and we have a lot of work to do,” Schatz said. “And I’m not quite sure who the ‘we’ is, and that kind of overwhelms me.”
The school board will put forth a formal task force resolution in June. Members will include parents, district representatives and representatives from community organizations. The group will evaluate existing transition services, review best practices and submit recommendations to Supt. Johnson likely in the fall.
The special education department is already in the midst of a separate evaluation of its programs, which will complement the task force’s work.
“Part of the motivation behind this task force was to carve out some time and some space so that people can meet at the table,” Bates said. “Taking all that great energy and passion from the staff and yet recognizing some of the frustrated dreams and hopes of some parents.”
Aging out
Although Bennett plans to stay involved, her son is aging out of Transition Plus and into a new set of issues.
He has limited housing options. The state support he gets won’t cover the cost of an assisted living apartment, and, even if it did, his state-funded Personal Care Assistant hours are being cut, meaning he won’t have anyone to help him do things like cook or grocery shop.
“Young adults with Down syndrome become depressed. There’s this increase in depression after about 21, because of all these ways in which they’re taught to be independent and all these ways that they see the society, and then they can’t have the independence,” Bennett said. “Sam says to us often, ‘I AM moving out. I WILL be moving into my own apartment.’”
“I’m just getting more and more tired,” his mom said. “Who makes the change?  How do you bust it open and say here’s what it could be?”

Be gentle.

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