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The College of Education’s Lisa Cushing jokes that Illinois is the “51st state and failing” in transitioning students with disabilities from school to adulthood.
There may be nowhere to go but up, but the College’s Department of Special Education is ensuring the state’s rise is a rapid one with the first GET SET conference on May 18. The conference, focusing on interagency collaboration to enhance post-secondary outcomes for students with disabilities in Chicagoland, is part of a federally-funded grant project at the College. Project SET aims to improve post-high school transition for students with disabilities while they seek employment, post-secondary education and training, and enhanced independent living opportunities as they move to adulthood.
“There really is an absence of transition specialists [in Chicago],” said Cushing, Ph.D., associate professor and co-director of Project SET. “This conference provides a venue for transition specialists, teachers, parents and self-advocates to come and grow this and hopefully begin to sustain on its own so we can give it to Chicago Public Schools (CPS).”
The conference opens with addresses from Joe Albritton, deputy commissioner in the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities; Sue Walter, statewide transition consultant at the Illinois State Board of Education; and Allison Donnelly, CPS transition manager speaking on the state of transition services in Illinois and Chicago.
Panel sessions focus on the three main areas of transition services: employment, access to post-secondary education and independent living. Lunch is provided by students at Jackie Vaughn Vocational High School, a CPS school for students with disabilities. In the afternoon, College students will present to small groups lessons and strategies they learned from hosting community conversations, followed by a larger discussion on creating interagency collaboration.
“We realized you could prepare people to be transition specialists until the cows come home, but over and over and over people who do this work talk about how very lonely it is,” said Michelle Parker-Katz, Ph.D., professor and co-director of Project SET. “The need for a network is so clear, and you really need a local network, someone you can call in the 312 or 773 or 708 or 847 area and know that a person or group is there to help.”
As much as educators need to play catch-up in building transition services, Parker-Katz says public awareness and access to resources is another missing link for parents and caregivers. She says the problem is particularly acute in areas characterized by low income and low resources. Strengthening the local network of transition specialists can be a solution to this issue.
“We are really tackling issues people don’t like to touch because they are messy,” Cushing said. “What does it mean to be working in transition in Chicago, what kinds of resources do we have or lack thereof, and how do we deal with that. We’re grappling with the big issues.”