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Find out how one of our special education projects helps students live fuller lives after high school
By Alysia Tate
When Deidra Freeman became a special education teacher at the new George Westinghouse College Prep campus on Chicago’s West Side in 2009, she found that many families couldn’t see much of a future for their children.
Battling multiple or severe disabilities, her students’ parents imagined their days after graduation – with no school to structure their time -- would be spent sitting at home watching television. Higher education or work seemed out of reach to many.
“That’s kind of what they’re planning, and that’s not a life,” she said.
Freeman knew they deserved – and could have – much more. So transition – preparing students with disabilities for life beyond high school – became her passion, drawing her to a UIC program that grounds special education professionals in this growing field.
That program is Project SET – Seamless and Effective Transition — the one-of-a-kind Chicago program UIC’s College of Education rolled out in 2010 thanks to a $1.25 million grant from the Office of Special Education Programs in the U.S. Department of Education.
Spearheaded by Clinical Professor Michelle Parker-Katz and Associate Professor Lisa Cushing, the project’s four faculty work to both boost special education teachers’ transition skills and to create a regional network of leaders who will share best practices and resources via a website and conferences.
The five-year grant will cover all tuition and fees to train 56 high school teachers working in “urban environments” in the metro area as transition specialists, teachers who already are certified to work in special education. This advanced certification is offered by just three schools in Illinois, according to Cushing. This year, nearly 50 applicants applied for 14 Project SET slots.
Through a combination of coursework, leadership seminars, hands-on mentoring and projects in their own schools, Chicago-area teachers who are accepted to the two-year program help students learn how to navigate education, employment and independent living beyond high school.
About 22,000 youth with disabilities ages 14½ and up in the city’s public schools require transition services as part of their Individualized Education Program (IEP), according to Allison Donnelly, transition manager in Chicago Public School’s Office of Special Education and Supports, who serves on the project’s advisory board.
To get the same services they received in high school, teens with disabilities often struggle to apply to a confusing, intimidating mish-mash of local and national programs after graduation.
“A lot of these kids just fall through the cracks,” Cushing said. Project SET aims to provide resources for a growing number of professionals working to change that.
Through the project, educators get tools they can apply immediately to their curriculum. Travel training, for instance, helped Freeman prepare students to navigate trains and buses so they can easily visit colleges or interview for jobs. And it inspired Freeman to take leadership in building an online, professional learning community within the school; she sends all teachers a weekly email with practical advice for dealing with special education students.
Westinghouse seniors Kanika Banks and Virginia Hamer say they will need that help when they look for work. Easily distracted because of their learning disabilities, they fear that they may make mistakes and that future employers might get impatient.
“We sit there until the end of the day, almost, to ask a question because we are scared or ashamed of what the question is, how people might take it,” Banks said. “If they just take it slow,” Hamer said, “we’ll get it.”
Both of them credit Freeman with helping them gain the confidence they needed to stay on track for high school graduation and to start planning for college.
Freeman, who also advises her school’s student council, said helping students with disabilities become their own best advocates just reinforces her own belief that the right encouragement and support can bring out the best in every young person.
“Every kid needs that,” she said.
Chicago Public Schools needs far more programs like Project SET, Donnelly said. She applauded UIC and said Project SET represents a best-case scenario of what is possible when institutions work together to support teachers to best meet students’ needs.
“We are really fortunate to have that partnership right in front of us,” she said.
Photo courtesy correspondent Alysia Tate