December 25, 2013

Special education teachers in Merced are lighting the way to independent living for adult students

Brian Strong finds his job working with developmentally disabled adults more rewarding than being in a regular classroom because when a student masters something that has stumped him for years, it’s a cause for celebration.

Brian Strong finds his job working with developmentally disabled adults more rewarding than being in a regular classroom because when a student masters something that has stumped him for years, it’s a cause for celebration.

Strong and three other teachers comprise the Merced Union High School District’s Adults in Transition program, which serves 125 students between the ages 18 and 22 at Atwater and Merced high school campuses. School districts are mandated to provide such services to those who request it.

“It’s more fulfilling, no doubt about it,” Strong said. “The students I work with have a higher level of need. To be able to see success from those who often struggle, to encourage someone who has failed over and over again but is still willing to try again is inspiring. They have a lot of grit and determination.”

Darren Sylvia, the district’s director of student support services, said instruction moves from typical high school subjects to learning life skills. As the program has become better-known, the district has gone from 15 adult students in 2011 to triple-digit figures this year.

Dave Wells has taught special education for 22 years and has been in the transition program for four years. He has 38 students and loves the challenge of working with those who are challenged.

“I root for the underdog,” Wells said. “There’s nothing better than to see the light bulb go on, when they grasp a subject.”

Sylvia said it takes a unique individual to work with the most needy.

“We’re the last chance for some kids,” Sylvia said. “It’s a transition between high school and real life, adapting to real work experience.”

“When they are 22, they are done with our program, and we connect them with other avenues or services such as the Central Valley Opportunity Center, Kingsview Work Experience Center, the Central Valley Regional Center or the state Department of Rehabilitation,” Sylvia said.

Christina Petersen works with 18 students at Atwater High School and relishes what’s become her life’s work.

“I am passionate about helping students lacking skills that the general population has,” Petersen said. “It’s a different kind of passion than world history, to inspire the uninspired.”

Some of Petersen’s students work at Freddy’s Famous Grille at Atwater High School. It’s a small restaurant where staff members are served food such as breakfast items.

Robert Nunes also teaches in the transition program at Atwater. He has been involved with the program for five years and is writing his master’s thesis on 18- to 22-year-olds involved in the program.

Nunes said his students struggle with daily living as well as learning job skills. He recently took some of his students on a field trip to a restaurant and was surprised to learn most of them had never seen a menu before.

“We want to get them independent, having the light go off,” Nunes said. “We are teaching skills they can use for the rest of their lives.”

Wells said the transition teachers work on students’ mobility, building social skills and job training opportunities.

Transition program students learn how to use public transportation to get to and from jobs and their classes. Higher-functioning students are sometimes referred to Merced College’s disabled-services program after they reach 22 years of age.

Sylvia said he is always looking for community-based operations where students can learn job skills. He is seeking a donated home where students can be taught basic day-to-day living skills a real-world environment.

The teachers shared stories about some of their students’ successes:

• Nunes said he has been working with a high-functioning 21-year-old woman with a learning disability who was able to get a driver’s license and has worked in several retail settings.
• Petersen said an 18-year-old boy in her classes could not speak at all. Now he knows about 25 words and is starting to build friendships. He works in a student store at Atwater High, is able to count change, has learned to make sandwiches and shop for the food items he needs.
• Wells said a 21-year-old man who has been in the program for three years initially was very socially challenged. He has since learned social skills, rides the bus to and from school, and now is well-liked by his peers.
• Strong said a boy in his second year of the program originally had a hard time socializing and had lots of conflicts. Now he rides the bus to school and to work. He is doing much better socially and appears very happy.

Tammie Calzadillas, the district’s assistant superintendent for educational services, said the district has the same educational obligation to older students as they do to other high schoolers.

“I feel it is the right thing to do, and we will continue to refine and improve our instructional program for students up to age 22 in the same manner as we have for our mainstream students,” Calzadillas said.

“We are a district that lives in a continuous improvement cycle and all students, older adults included, are the beneficiaries of our commitment to continually improving our craft,” she said.

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