Fostering Independence via Community Support
Mar 31, 2018 08:22PM
Erik Thompson, special education administrator of the Washtenaw Intermediate School District (WISD) Regional Educational Service Agency Young Adult Program, says, “The goal of our program is to assist individuals to be as successful and independent as possible in their adult roles as literate, healthy and fit individuals, involved citizens, self-directed, lifelong learners and as productive workers/volunteers.”
The Young Adult Program and services are designed for those with disabilities from 18 to 26 years old. Students first have to be eligible for special education and not earned a high school diploma. Secondly, they must reside within one of the local districts, school districts or boundaries in Washtenaw County. From there, the local school district will refer them to the WISD Young Adult Program.
“This year, we'll serve over 175 students that are spread out over nine classrooms located within the community, notes Thompson. “And next year, we're actually projecting to be well over 200 students and expand to 12 classrooms.”
WISD offers a number of services and activities. “On a typical day, students are going out into the community. They're doing occupational training volunteer opportunities in one of over 60 different businesses or nonprofit organizations. They're learning responsibility shopping; they're learning to use public transportation; they're learning to cook and various other life skills that are going to prepare them for life after school,” he relates.
In 2017, 32 percent of WISD students were competitively employed and 84 percent of students in the Young Adult project were competitively employed. “Just to give you an example, that's nearly double the national average,” says Thompson. “The amazing staff are so committed to helping their students to live happy, productive lives. Also, the families which encourage their students and support our program and many more; the adult agencies like Community Mental Health and Michigan Rehabilitation Services.”
“We wouldn't have nearly the amount of success if it wasn't for the partnerships that we have worked to create,” says Thompson. “But it's not just that it is AAATA [Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority] and The Wave [Western-Washtenaw Area Value Express] providing safe and reliable transportation every day for students. It's the businesses that have opened their doors wholeheartedly to provide opportunities for our students to learn invaluable skills that are going to help them to be more independent and potentially be employed after they leave us or during our program. It's the taxpayers here in Washtenaw County; the ones that time and time again have approved the special education millage, without which we would not be able to provide the level of services to the students that we currently do.”
Thompson recalls one member of the program. “A young man named Garrison started off in our classroom, moved from Phase 1 to Phase 2, and then eventually to our Young Adult Project, which is for students who are more independent. He is now a very popular employee at Zingerman's Deli, in Ann Arbor, and that in and of itself would be a success story. But even more, the fact that Garrison, in his own time now, is going around the state and talking to other young people and sharing his story in the hope to inspire them with the message of, ‘I was able to do it; you can do it, too.’ It's very powerful and think about the thousands of students who have been through this program in which their lives have been made better because of it. I'm very proud to be part of Young Adult.”
“I really think our Young Adult Program could be an example that other counties could learn from. I don't think there's anything like that, not only in the state of Michigan, in the country, in which teacher consultants and teacher assistants actually work with students who are independent or close to independent to create an adult life schedule that may help them to achieve their goals, which may be employment,” explains Thompson. “It may be obtaining a driver's license, moving into their own apartment or to navigate the adult world so that they're successful. Now how do you find staff that are that committed that are willing to go that extra mile to help their students be successful, I mean to even help them in their home?”
Thompson notes, “We're expanding, and we will be adding three new classrooms next year, so if anybody has a business or nonprofit organization and would be willing to open their doors so that our students can do occupation training or volunteer opportunities, they can go to our website or Facebook page to learn and read about the different success stories that are going on—some of the amazing activities that our students are doing, and some profiles of our students and teachers.