To many high school students, graduation is an exciting time: they’re free, they’re finally free! Maybe college is next, maybe a trade, but they’ve crossed the customary threshold between childhood and adulthood.
It’s not necessarily the same for students with intellectual disabilities. For one, they don’t always graduate with their peers. They can remain in high school until 22, watching students younger and younger than them graduate and move on. They don’t necessarily have job experience or career prospects, meaning they’re left without a place to belong or contribute.
“If you think about yourself ... how important your work life is and what does for you,” says Susan Lombardo, transition facilitator at East Chapel Hill High School. “It’s not just income, it’s quality of life.”
So she and Dana Hanson-Baldauf, PATHSS Program Coordinator at UNC-Chapel Hill, spearheaded a new program to help students with intellectual disabilities transition to adult life. In June, its first two participants graduated. Today, graduate Brian O’Donnell splits his time between UNC’s Davis Library and a relatively new job at Walgreens, while his classmate Brittany Newby has applied to a residential job training program in Goldsboro and is waiting to see if she got in.
Project Achieve for Transitioning High School Students (PATHSS) gets students like them out of the classroom and into workplaces, giving them hands-on externships that will ideally lead to work and a sense of belonging. Perhaps this cooperative effort between the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools and UNC, which provides resources and on-campus work for PATHSS students, will help bridge this gap for high schoolers with intellectual disabilities.
Hanson-Baldauf insists it could work anywhere.
“A program like this could be replicated at a community college, it could be replicated at a business park,” she says. Anywhere that students could go to get out of the classroom and do meaningful work, really, could support a program like PATHSS.
“This is a population that is so used to being recipients of service and care,” Hanson-Baldauf says. “Self-determination is a key thing. They have a right to belong and be a part of the community and to contribute.”
There are transition facilitators, whose job is to help students with disabilities enter the adult world, at the high schools in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro system. This type of position is fairly rare, Lombardo says, and in it she works closely with families, adult service agencies, school personnel and, naturally, the students themselves. It’s critical for the students to set and achieve goals: this is one the component elements of self-determination, Lombardo says.
“Historically, the statistics are very bleak for individuals with disabilities,” she says. “That’s something we want to change for our students in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools.”
That considered, hands-on learning and authentic experience are more meaningful and helpful than sitting at a desk in a traditional academic setting, Hanson-Baldauf says. So between 9:30 and noon from Monday to Friday, the PATHSS students got out of the school and learned by working. She and Lombardo are trying to expand the program to afternoons too, since some students have afternoon shifts.
“The whole idea of a classroom in the community really began to evolve,” Lombardo says. These students learn about the world and their immediate community by being in it. This kind of hybrid approach is the ideal, she says, and the students she works with tend to flourish in it. It’s crucial for individuals with disabilities to have a peer group, a place to socialize and make friends as well as contribute in a workplace, and be integrated into their greater community. Lombardo has faith in people and in the local resources. As for her students, she believes in them implicitly.
“There’s so much that an individual with a disability can bring to the workforce,” she says.