Eighteen-year-old William Dennis carefully spread a layer of mayonnaise on his sandwich before adding a few slices of turkey and cheese. But wrestling his lunch into a Ziploc bag proved to be challenging. He couldn’t seem to make it fit.
Dennis and other special education students in Teton County School District’s No. 1 Transition Academy redefine everyday challenges. Their hurdles to independence after high school graduation are very different than their peers on the traditional diploma track.
“Our students with disabilities have challenges that maybe not everybody understands,” said Tracie Welch, student services transition coordinator. “I think some people just take for granted that something is going to happen with these people.”
Under Wyoming law, students with individualized education plans, or IEPs, are to receive services through the end of the year in which they turn 21. The Transition Academy bridges the gap between high school graduation at 18 and access to adult services, like Community Entry Services, when the teens become legal adults.
“It opens a lot of doors,” Welch said.
Her eyes lit up as she spoke about her students’ potential.
“What I do with these students is basically prepare them for life. I love what I do with these kids because they are so much more capable of things than any of us believe.”
IEPs are for students who have a disability that makes it difficult for them to handle the regular curriculum. The document can be between 20 to 30 pages long, laying out a student’s disability, how it affects his ability to learn, and what support and strategies should be implemented to help him learn as much as his peers without disabilities.
Like the IEP process itself, which involves a team of educators and therapists working with the student and the family, there is input from all sides when entering the transition program. Entering it after graduation is optional.
“I’m really strongly encouraging students to stay involved in the program,” Welch said, pointing at Dennis. “He doesn’t have to be here. It’s a choice. But I personally think we offer so many supports they’re crazy not to. And I’m hoping someday this program will be attractive enough that everybody will want to and we will be in a position where we turn people away, but we’re not in that position yet.”
This year the program has two part-time and three full-time students. Those numbers are expected to grow to seven full-time students next school year, meaning Welch will have even more students to help on the road to life outside school walls and support.
Welch and Judy Weikie, a paraprofessional in the life-skills department, try not to do things for their students. Rather, they ask questions that gently guide them to the right path.
Welch regularly calls Dennis ‘Bud’ and ‘Buddy’ when they converse.
“When you need help, ask,” Welch told Dennis gently. “When you stand here and struggle, I might not know you need help.”
He grabbed his honeydew, chips, completed sandwich and Propel water. It was time to catch the bus for work.
“Will can be an independent, successful member of this community,” Welch said. “I can play a role in that.”
The faces of independence
Stephanie Sosa, 20, meticulously drew the letters SS over and over in tiny boxes. She softly repeated the letters, her initials, as speech therapist Patti Drui listened.
Sosa is another student in Teton County school’s transition program. Originally diagnosed with selective mutism, a disorder associated with delayed speech, Drui said she’s made tremendous progress.
“She’s come a long way,” said Drui, who works with Sosa to make language functional.
Sosa has four jobs — at Vertical Harvest, Browse ‘N Buy, the Senior Center of Jackson Hole and the Animal Adoption Center. She needed to learn how to write her initials in order to check off bathroom cleanup at one of her jobs, so Drui worked with her on sentence completion tasks.
Drui spoke slowly, repeating instructions — sometimes simplified — if necessary.
“We forget how rapid we talk,” she said.
Sosa also wanted to practice how to tell customers the cost of their purchase as she rings them up at her jobs. Drui and Sosa worked together on the figure $3.76 — sixes and nines can be tricky for Sosa — but Sosa knocked the ball out of the park. She’d point to each number, her fingers bedazzled with rings, wrinkle her face and quietly say the number.
Drui looked shocked.
“Have you been practicing this a lot?” she asked Sosa. “‘Cause I can tell. I’m so excited, Stephanie. That’s incredible. You’re our rock star.”
Special education varies tremendously student to student.
For some, like Dennis, that means scoping out potential colleges with degree programs that cater to special education students and offer support to finish with a diploma in hand that means the same as all other diplomas offered at the institution.
For others, like Sosa, it’s getting them comfortable with riding the START bus to jobs around town. Welch followed Sosa around on the bus, gradually phasing out her presence, until Sosa and her family felt comfortable with her riding alone.
“Ultimately, we’re responsible for student safety,” Welch said. “I want them to learn these skills, but I don’t want to put them in harm’s way. We have to be very thoughtful about it.”
Whatever level of support is needed, community members are thankful the school district is able to provide it. Caroline Croft Estay, one of the co-founders of Vertical Harvest who’s been an independent case manager for 19 years, said parents used to tell her graduating high school was like “falling off a cliff.”
She calls those with disabilities “differently abled.”
“I do believe the disability movement is the next civil rights movement,” Croft Estay said. “It’s a human rights movement. And we’re also seeing more and more people with different abilities. We don’t see the different ability anymore, we just see each other as people. It’s see me for me. That’s what this is all about.”
As a case manager she encourages students and their families to use school district resources until they’re 21.
“Because then those years are focused on career development, independent living, and even college,” she said. “What’s next after high school? It doesn’t just have to be that one road of a ‘dayhab’ service or staying at home at mom and dad’s house or just working five hours a week. The push now is working as many hours as possible, as many hours as you can and want to, and finding the right job you’re passionate about.”
For Vertical Harvest employee Kyle Burson that meant a job out of the shadows. He used to work as a night auditor for hotels in town.
“The way I look at it,” he said. “Out of sight, out of mind.”
Welch and Weikie try to stay in the background as much as possible, gently nudging students like Dennis who can be a little more independent.
“The dishes in the dish drainer are clean,” Welch told Dennis. “So where do they go?”
With a little push, Dennis was off and running. He makes his lunch with Welch and Weikie before heading off to work, learning how to menu plan, shop and cook for three meals a week. He shops at Smith’s with fellow student Brendan Burke, 19, who graduated from high school this spring. They learn how to navigate the checkout line and the various aisles of the store on their journey towards self-reliance and empowerment.
“It’s a beginner look at what it takes to buy food with your own dollars, your own debit card, and think about the cost per meal,” Welch said. “It’s a combination of what they need and what their schedules are. Their jobs drive our program. We really want our students to gain those fundamental vocational skills to be successful in a competitive, integrated and diverse workforce.”
That includes budgeting — how to make $30 turn into three to five lunches a week — and alternating between fancy cooked meals and quicker brown-bag lunches.
When Dennis has time he likes to be creative and make more complicated dishes than a simple sandwich. His favorites: “My dad’s meatloaf,” Dennis said. “Or a chicken-rice pilaf dish I did.”
When students aren’t cooking, they’re cleaning. They’ll do laundry and learn how to keep the bathroom and small kitchen spotless in their Blair Place apartment, cozy with a couch, puzzles, magazines, a computer. Welch has binders with 17 steps, broken down visually, to help students with these tasks.
“We like to keep them busy,” she said. “Cleaning, that may sound like a fairly easy thing, but for students with disabilities it can be challenging.”
The apartment, originally procured by former high school special education teacher Mary Beth Bayse, isn’t all work and no play. The students gather there on occasion for birthday parties, movie nights and even a Thanksgiving feast.
But once students have the skills to live on their own or with another roommate, finding a place to land can be tricky. Welch and Weikie help students fill out paperwork to qualify for low-income and affordable housing around town, but the stock is limited.
A patchwork of partnerships increases the potential for the transition program to have a positive impact on its students. With special education funding frozen at a three-year average across the state in concert with other funding cuts, the program could face more trouble, making partnerships even more valuable for Welch and her students.
“We might not be able to do all the things we currently do,” Welch said. “But by law we have to make certain requirements, so there’s a certain level of service that can’t be denied. When they talk about a three-year average, that’s almost impossible to talk about when you have students whose services are defined on an individual basis, annually. That’s a dangerous conversation, I think, to be having. Because it’s so individualized.”
One of those partnerships is with Community Entry Services, or CES, a program that works with adults with intellectual disabilities or brain injuries. It has offerings for differing needs.
Since Transition Academy students are eligible for CES services when they turn 21, some spend afternoons with current CES clients, going out to coffee or skiing with them to help bridge the gap.
“Coming in a few hours here and there, we’ve seen, helps that transition once they’re 21 years old,” CES Director Carolyn Worth said. “I think it’s very important. I kind of don’t know what we did before we had that program.”
Focusing on employment
Dennis worked at Snow King last summer. The Department of Vocational Rehabilitation, known as DVR, paid some of his starter wages to help make the transition into the workforce easier for both employer and employee, and at first, he had a job coach.
This summer he’s back and is showing steady improvement.
“He’s one of our big success stories,” Welch said.
DVR works with anyone with a diagnosed disability, ranging from construction workers who are injured on the job to clients with mental illness and developmental disabilities. That includes the transition program students.
“The goal is always employment with DVR,” said Avery Bedford, a vocational rehabilitation counselor. “One of the things DVR is trying to do is spend more money on our youth population with the idea that the students we serve now won’t be clients later. They’ll be set up to be independent and work really, really well and have a career ahead of them instead of coming to us when they are 30 or 40 and coming to us saying, ‘I need to make more money, I’m destitute.’”
Training looks a little different for DVR clients.
“You don’t always think about all the small things we take for granted, like writing your initials, that a person has to learn as part of job training,” Bedford said.
Bedford and Welch work together to find jobs in each student’s area of interest.
“We have so many employers in Jackson that we really are able to say, ‘What do you want to do when you grow up?’” Bedford said. “A lot of employers are pretty excited to make their workplace more inclusive.”
Riding the Cowboy Coaster at the end of most shifts is Dennis’ favorite attraction.
“I load and unload the sleds on the alpine slide,” Dennis said.
Students like Dennis, Bedford said, are an “untapped workforce.”
“The training part is tough, but we’re here for that,” she said. “And once they’re on board and part of your team, they’re not going anywhere.”
That’s what Croft Estay said about her employees at Vertical Harvest. It’s not a charity model, she said, it’s competitive employment that’s compassionate but avoids pity, victimization and learned helplessness.
“As far as loyalty, my employees are 10 minutes early to work, never hungover, show up on powder days, work until the shift is over,” she said. “They, if anything, keep us in line. I don’t want anybody hiring anybody because they feel sorry for them. I want people hiring people because they’re good damn workers. It’s shifting that paradigm.”
But jobs can also have drawbacks. Social Security benefits can be a huge help for special education students with a disability, but the program limits what kind of money enrollees can earn and what kind of assets they can accrue without danger of losing their benefits.
“We’re relegating them to a life of poverty, essentially,” Welch said.
“It’s both helpful because it allows clients to have access to more money than they could sometimes make on their own working,” she said. “But it does have so many limitations that it does prevent them from some of the independent living that people who don’t have those limits can access.”
Some more help
The federal ABLE Act, passed in 2014, has helped. The law made saving for disability-related expenses easier by making it legal for people with disabilities and their families to set up a savings account that won’t be taxed.
In order to advocate for her students, Welch is learning how to navigate such federal regulations and paperwork as she goes. That’s where partners like DVR and CES come in to help make transition program students successful in the real world and as independent as they can be.
Welch wouldn’t have it any other way as she champions special education students to reach their full potential.
“I’ll tell you what,” Welch said. “You bring me a dream and I’ll make it happen.”