District Program to Provide Help with Transition to Independent Living

Transition program teacher Hilary Coia meets with seniors Bo Geiger and Luis Avalos, who will be participants in the program next year.

Special education teacher Ms. Hilary Coia meets with Elmwood Park High School seniors Bo and Luis, who will participate in District 401's new transition program next year. Ms. Coia will be the program's full-time teacher. (District 401 photo by Dave Porreca)

A transition program for young adults with special needs who are 18 to 21 will begin at Elmwood Park High School in August 2019.

The program, which will be voluntary for participants whose need is determined by their individualized education plan (IEP) team, will focus on teaching the functional academic, social, communication and employment/vocational skills required for independent living after high school.

"This program will be extremely valuable to not only the participants but also their families," said EPHS special education teacher Ms. Hilary Coia, who will be working with the program next year. 

"During high school, students and families receive a lot of support from the school," Ms. Coia continued. "Once students graduate, they and their families are almost left to 'fend for themselves.' For students who need more support, this program not only smooths that transition into adulthood but also provides families with additional community support and services available to their child."

Transition program students inspect the new oven in Room 166.

PHOTO: As special education teacher Ms. Hilary Coia looks on, EPHS seniors Bo and Luis inspect the oven they will be using next year in Room 166 when they participate in the District's new transition program. Click image for larger view. (District 401 photo by Dave Porreca)

An Experienced Team

Seven participants are expected for the inaugural year of the program, according to District 401's Director for Student Services, Dr. Kari Smith.

Created by a committee of special education teachers and administrators under the leadership of Dr. Smith, the program will draw upon the talents of several current EPHS educators and specialists. 

Dr. Smith and Ms. Sara Barrick, the District's special education coordinator for grades 7-12, will oversee the program as a whole, which will be housed in Room 166 of the high school.

Ms. Coia will be the program's full-time transition teacher, and another EPHS special education teacher, Mr. Paul Fredericks, will serve in the afternoons as vocational coordinator.

The school's speech & language pathologist, Ms. Megan Bremer, will help participants weekly with their communication skills. 

Ms. Nina Limbeck and Ms. Agnes Stankiewicz, the school's social workers, will assist the program by providing consultative social-emotional support as needed.

Up to three special education paraprofessionals will work with participants on a daily basis.

Together, the transition team members will work toward achieving the program's seven major goals listed below.

List of transition program goals

CREDIT: Chart based on presentation slide prepared by D401 Student Services Department.  

Developing Essential Skills

In her role as transition teacher, Ms. Coia will concentrate on education or training and daily life skills, such as self-advocacy, problem solving, budgeting, social relationships and health/fitness.

"Adjusting to life after high school is a difficult time for all students," she said. "EP's transition program will provide more individualized and specific experiences in employment, education and independent living skills for our participants."

She added: "Another main focus of the program is to build self-advocacy and self-determination skills, so the participants can not only speak up for themselves but also make their own decisions and choices about their life. Our goal is to help these individuals achieve a high quality of life, living as independently as possible."

A key part of the program will be making sure participants have adequate job skills and training.

As vocational coordinator, Mr. Fredericks will guide participants through the employment process. He will help them develop the résumé, application and interview skills needed to conduct successful job searches as well as the on-the-job skills needed to maintain employment once they've been hired.

Transition team members Dr. Kari Smith, seated left, and Sara Barrick, seated right; standing from left are Megan Bremer, Agnes Stankiewicz, Paul Fredericks and Nina Limbeck.

PHOTO: In addition to Ms. Coia, the new transition program will draw upon the talents of half a dozen other experienced educators. Overseeing the program will be Dr. Kari Smith (seated left), District 401's Director for Student Services, and Ms. Sara Barrick (seated right), the District's special education coordinator for grades 7-12. Providing specialized expertise will be (standing from left) Ms. Megan Bremer, speech & language pathologist; Ms. Agnes Stankiewicz, school social worker; Mr. Paul Fredericks, special education teacher and vocational coordinator; and Ms. Nina Limbeck, school social worker. Click image for larger view. (District 401 photo by Dave Porreca)

Creating the Right Space

To accommodate the program, Room 166 underwent extensive renovation earlier this year.

The 1,652-square-foot room was originally built as the high school's auto shop. From Feb. 21 to March 30, contractors performed the following work:

► Added a wall
► Laid new tile flooring
► Installed a new kitchen, including a stove, oven, sink, dishwasher and refrigerator 
► Painted and patched the existing walls
► Installed new electrical outlets and new lighting
► Renovated plumbing to the restroom and kitchen

The District is also in the process of purchasing furniture, which will be delivered and installed prior to the start of the 2019-20 school year.

According to District 401's Assistant Superintendent for Finance & Operations, Mr. Jim Jennings, the renovation cost $67,900 and was paid for out of the current year's operating funds. The project required no tax increase. 

The space in Room 166 now consists of a small anteroom where students will check in and store their belongings, a large inner room where academic skill-building activities will take place, and a large outer room where the kitchen is located. Students will use this area to cook meals and practice independent living skills.

A view of the new kitchen area in Room 166.

PHOTOS: Above, a view of the new kitchen equipment recently installed in Room 166 to create a space where transition program participants will cook and practice other daily life skills. Below, a more expansive view of the kitchen area, which shows the new tile flooring that was part of Room 166's renovation. Click images for larger view. (District 401 photos by Dave Porreca)

Another view of the kitchen area in Room 166.

Into the Community

Although the program will be located in Room 166, much of the participants' time will be spent outside of the high school building. 

Participants will be out in the community, learning how to use public transportation, shopping for groceries to make their own meals, doing fitness training at the EP Civic Center, taking part in programs at the EP Public Library or developing job skills at a worksite.

The program will be tailored to meet participants' individual transition needs. The day will begin with checking in at 8:30 a.m., but after that the schedules will tend to vary from person to person and from day to day. 

"We did a sample schedule that we shared with parents," Dr. Smith said. "After participants check in, they're going to look at their individual schedules, and then maybe on a Monday they will go as a group to do cooking prep. They might go to Elmwood Park Parks & Rec for fitness activities on a Tuesday. Wednesday may be self-advocacy and cooking, Thursday might be for travel training, and then on Friday they might be working on developing communication skills. So it really depends on the individual participants."

This highly individualized approach is just one of the ways the transition program will differ from traditional high school offerings, as shown in the table below.

Differences between high school and the new transition program.

CREDIT: Table based on presentation slide prepared by D401 Student Services Department.  

Family Support

Current EPHS students who are eligible for graduation and who could benefit from the program were identified by their IEP teams. The District then informed the students and their parents of the transition program and how it would operate.

The reaction has been positive.

"We planned 'A Day in the Life of the Transition Program' for all potential participants for them to get a realistic viewpoint on what the program will be like, and it was received very well by all participants," Ms. Coia said. 

"We also hosted an informational parent night and toured the room," she continued, "and parents expressed a lot of interest and excitement for their child to be involved in the program."

Transition program fill a cupboard in Room 166.

PHOTO: Current EPHS seniors Luis (foreground) and Bo stock a cabinet in Room 166's kitchen area, one of the places where transition program members will be developing their skills for independent living. Click image for larger view. (District 401 photo by Dave Porreca)

Becoming Self-Sufficient

Transition programs for young adults are not new. EPHS students who needed the help of such a program upon becoming eligible for graduation had previously used the services provided by the Leyden Area Special Education Cooperative (LASEC). 

But in a move approved by the D401 Board of Education as well as by other LASEC member districts and the Illinois State Board of Education, District 401 will be withdrawing from the cooperative effective July 1, 2020. So the District created its own transition program to make sure its students continue to receive all the services they need.

The program was formulated this year by a committee directed by Dr. Smith and consisting of Ms. Barrick, Ms. Coia, Mr. Fredericks, Ms. Bremer, Ms. Limbeck, Ms. Stankiewicz and special education teachers Ms. Kristen CarrollMr. Charles Curtin, Ms. Bridget Flood and Mr. Josh Heinen.

EPHS Principal Mr. Douglas Wildes and Assistant Principal Ms. Kyleen Coia also contributed to the planning.

"I'm just fortunate to have such a great group of people working on this," Dr. Smith said. "We're working as a team, and we're super excited about the program. I think the participants, now that they've experienced what it's going to look like next year, are getting excited about it too. We can't wait for it."

Transition program students fill a cupboard in Room 166.

PHOTO: Luis and Bo get an early start learning their way around Room 166's kitchen area, where they will be cooking for themselves next year as members of the District's new transition program. Click image for larger view. (District 401 photo by Dave Porreca)

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