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Transition After School: Knowing Yourself

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While children with disabilities are in special education, they're also preparing for what educators call "the transition" - what they'll do after they graduate from high school, or when they turn 21. By law, the transition process starts at age 12. School counselors ask the student what they want to do, what they like and don't like. The same questions are asked parents and teachers. By the time the student is 16, a written transition plan lays a roadmap for the child future schooling, job, and housing. David Sommerstein visited Alexandria Bay high school to see the transition process in action. At its best, transition does more than help students go to college or get a job. It's a carefully monitored path of self-discovery that teaches the student to know what kind of help they need and how to get it.

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DAVID SOMMERSTEIN: "The resource room at Alex Bay High is airy and bright. A few students work at a group table. For disabilities from dyslexia to attention deficit disorder to cerebral palsy, this is where kids go for extra help to get the support they need. Melissa sits down at a bank of computers. Melissa is an assumed name. Her parents didn't want her to use her real one. She plugs in her portable hard drive and starts working on an assignment for computer science."

MELISSA: "It's a PowerPoint presentation about "Crew". And then I have all different categories that you can go to. Like you can go to a page on "Sweep Rowing" on "Sculling"."

DAVID SOMMERSTEIN: "Melissa's crew crazy right now. She just learned to row last year and she competed in the Empire State Games over the summer. She's a veracious learner in lots of ways. She admits a weakness for diseases."

MELISSA: "Most people don't think of reading about like tuberculosis as something fun. I'm different I know."

DAVID SOMMERSTEIN: "Education wasn't always so joyful for Melissa. In third grade she couldn't learn to read and spell. She could read a new word dozens of times and still not know what it meant."

MELISSA: "I would go to school for a normal school day and then go home and work on homework for another normal school day before I got to go to bed."

DAVID SOMMERSTEIN: "Melissa's mom says it was hard on the whole family."

MELISSA'S MOM: "I would sit at night and watch her stress doing her work and it would stress me."

DAVID SOMMERSTEIN: "After testing in sixth grade, Melissa was diagnosed with a learning disability and entered the special education system. She started going to the resource room. She listened to books on tape while reading them. She got study guides, flash cards and more time to prepare for tests. She learned to learn in her own way."

MELISSA: "I don't know what I would have done without it. Probably had a lot less hair than I have right now."

DAVID SOMMERSTEIN: "Melissa always knew she wanted to go to college."

MELISSA: "When you first start coming to the resource room is when you have I guess the biggest fears and you get the typical stereotypes. Going to the resource room means you can't do anything. Well you can. It's just there are some areas that I do need the help in and I know how to ask for the help being in here."

DAVID SOMMERSTEIN: "The adaptations Melissa needed to succeed where written down in her IEP, the Individualized Education Plan that all students with disabilities must get by law. When it's done right the IEP is a recipe for success in life. Tasha Jeffers runs the resource room."

TASHA JEFFERS: "My famous quote that I say to all of them is "Mommy Jeffers is not going to be there next year, you need to fight for yourself. I always tell them when you leave for college and you pack for college your IEP needs to be in your hand and copies of it so you can give it to the teachers."

DAVID SOMMERSTEIN: "Whether students go to college or work or a group home, the IEP becomes a blueprint for the future. As early as twelve, students are asked what they want to do after school. At age sixteen every student with an IEP goes to BOCES for a day long vocational assessment that tests their skills. Jeffers says it plants the seed for kids to dream and to be real."

TASHA JEFFERS: "I mean if you always knew you wanted to be a veterinarian, which means operating on little animal but you went out there and found out that you didn't have really great fine motor skill, you might want to think about maybe I want to do something big."

DAVID SOMMERSTEIN: "The school arranges job fairs and meetings with resource providers like BOCES or VESID. It may setup work internship or training in a trade, line up a job coach or transportation. Pam Monica, the School Psychologist says the transition process is tailored to the individual student."

PAM MONICA: "Some students that have more severe needs we might talk to another agency such as sun Mountain, DDSO as well. So they have somebody ready to help them for the next step once they leave our building."

DAVID SOMMERSTEIN: "Districts vary widely in how they prepare students for life after school. Eric Bright trains educators for the Eastern New York transition site. The best schools like Lake Placid start as early as third grade. The parents and teachers and psychologist form a tightly knit team around the student. But other schools don't even fulfill the requirements."

ERIC BRIGHT: "Team members are not communicating with each other. They're not working in concert. They aren't doing maybe level one vocational assessments which are mandated."

DAVID SOMMERSTEIN: "Are there schools that are not doing that?"

ERIC BRIGHT: "Yes. It red flags us to go in and say cause that's our job - What can we do to help you?"

DAVID SOMMERSTEIN: "Special educators agree that the most important step in transition may be teaching students to understand their disabilities and to advocate for themselves. In this Melissa has excelled. She says one time she went to a college fair. She noticed recruiters gave her a cool reception when she mentioned her disability right off. So she changed her tactic."

MELISSA: "I guess people see the disability before they see you. Which I found myself this year going up to people, talking to them. They talk to you about your grades and your SAT scores and then after they've talked about all that, then asking them if they have a learning center.  I get used to the same reactions but I guess maybe you don't notice them so much cause you're hoping the person sees what you've accomplished before they see the disability that you have."

DAVID SOMMERSTEIN: "Melissa passed all her regents last year. She plans to graduate in June. And just a few days ago the School Principal recognized her amongst all the students in the school for having the outstanding qualities of a life long learner. For North Country Public Radio, I'm David Sommerstein in Alexandria Bay."

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