Extending support, beyond high school: Transition Academy provides opportunities for special needs students in competitive workforce

In October 2009, the Redmond Reporter launched a series of stories about the Lake Washington School District's (LWSD) Transition Academy, a unique, downtown Redmond facility that helps high school graduates with developmental disabilities practice "real world" skills for employment and independence.

Transition Academy graduate Andrew Young

In October 2009, the Redmond Reporter launched a series of stories about the Lake Washington School District’s (LWSD) Transition Academy, a unique, downtown Redmond facility that helps high school graduates with developmental disabilities practice “real world” skills for employment and independence.

All throughout Redmond and neighboring cities, Transition Academy students and graduates volunteer or work at schools, non-profits, retail businesses, restaurants, retirement homes and more.

But the current economy and depressed job market have made that outcome increasingly tenuous. Transition Academy students and grads must compete with individuals in the general population for the few jobs that are out there.

What can their families or others do to help them lead full, productive lives?

NO MORE YELLOW BUS

Nancy Young is the mother of 2009 Transition Academy graduate Andrew Young, who also graduated from Eastlake High School in Sammamish.

Andrew was born with a chromosomal anomaly which had “pervasive impacts, including a significant speech delay, some physical limitations such as balance, strength and fine motor skills and cognitive and academic challenges,” said Nancy, who is an administrator in the Northshore School District.

She voiced effusive praise for Transition Academy co-director Richard Haines, describing him as “very caring … with the ability to negotiate certain things that can be scary for parents of a special needs child.”

For example, Transition Academy students are taught how to ride public transportation on their own.

In spite of Andrew’s challenges, said Nancy, “He has always had an interest and a desire to be part of the community, whether it was at Eastlake or the world around him. We were grateful to find educators willing to extend that support, beyond high school.”

However, Nancy added, “When kids are still under the umbrella of the (public) school system, up to age 21, there are supports such as job coaching. At 21, that goes away. We call it ‘no more yellow bus.'”

And when jobs are scare in general, it creates a dire dilemna for the families of developmentally disabled adults.

“Just as things dried up for the regular population, it’s even more difficult for folks who need supports or accommodations in the workplace,” Nancy noted.

LIMITED WAIVERS

Washington State’s Division of Developmental Disabilities (DDD) can provide “waivers” for additional job support, but the amount, duration and scope fluctuate, depending on an individual’s needs and the dollars the state receives through a federal match.

Betsy McAlister, who is a special needs parent in the LWSD and assistant coordinator of the King County Parent Coalition for Developmental Disabilities, shared some news with the Redmond Reporter about the state’s recent budget deliberations.

“In other areas of the DD budget, we took cuts, but in the employment area, legislators saw the importance of the funding for transition graduates and allocated funding for approximately 1,401 eligible DDD clients statewide. Up until the age of 21, the responsibility of the funding falls to the school district. The funding below will allow individuals to access job coaches/supported employment,” said McAlister.

• Employment and Day (Transition) Funding is provided for supported employment for 629 individuals who are expected to graduate from high school during the 2009-11 biennium. Employment and day services include job creation and job supports for paid employment. Services are provided at an average per client funding level of $515 per month.

“We call these folks non-waiver grads,” said McAlister.

• Employment and Day to Waiver Funding is provided for supported employment and other services for 429 clients of DDD who graduate from high school during the 2009-11 biennium. This will fund 429 students who had been eligible for “state-only” services, rather than community-based, and move them to the waiver, said McAlister.

• Waiver Graduate Employment Services Funding is provided for supported employment and day services for approximately 343 people graduating high school or transition services. These students are currently on a Home and Community Base Waiver and supported employment and day services are a component of the waiver.

CREATING A LIFE

Nancy is grateful that Andrew has obtained a waiver through DDD, which will allow him to live with his parents while he receives a little more job coaching. Due to his health issues, it’s unlikely he’ll be able to work full-time, so his family has looked for the types of social/recreational activities that are strongly encouraged at the Transition Academy.

“We call it ‘creating a life’ — finding active things to do in the community,” said Nancy.

Some days, Andrew volunteers at an elementary school within walking distance of his family home. Other days, he takes two buses, independently, to Seattle Children’s Hospital where he has a mentor and is hoping to get a part-time job. He also exercises at the Redmond Athletic Club, likes to eat lunch at the Village Square Cafe in downtown Redmond and participates in Special Olympics and Young Life.

While he has come a long way through the LWSD’s special education programs and especially the Transition Academy, letting Andrew “do his own thing” still provokes some anxiety for his family.

Nancy explained, “When you have a typically developing 18-year-old, they are pushing to get away from you, be on their own. It is the opposite with a special needs teen or young adult. It’s a matter of gently coaxing, ‘You’re gonna be on your own, you’ll be fine, you can do this,’ while also anticipating some ‘skinned knees.'”

And the state has only limited funding to continue job and life coaching, “yet there are so many who need it,” Nancy emphasized.

“These are real-life people, this is someone’s child. If they don’t have a life, there’s a ripple effect on the family.”

KEEPING US GROUNDED

Redmond Athletic Club (RAC), 8709 161st Ave. NE is one of many Redmond businesses that has a supportive relationship with the LWSD Transition Academy.

Andrew has been working out at RAC, under the guidance of trainer Nuu Faaola, for about two-and-a-half years. Faaola has tailored a cardiovascular and strength-training regimen especially to Andrew’s needs, such as his bone structure.

Working with Andrew is both delightful and humbling, said Faaola, a former pro football player for the New York Jets.

“He’s always smiling,” Faaola noted. “It’s a reality check for us. When I start to complain, I look at him, how hard he works and what a great attitude he has. It keeps me grounded. I learn more from him than he learns from me.”

STRENGTH IN NUMBERS

What’s the best way for families of developmentally disabled young adults and others to advocate for facilities like the Transition Academy and other job coaching programs?

McAlister invites participation in The King County Parent Coalition. There is strength in numbers. Sharing concerns and resources, families and others can help to ensure that people with disabilities continue to be treated with dignity and given options to help them thrive in the community.

As well, the LWSD Transition Academy is always looking for local business partners who appreciate diversity and need loyal, enthusiastic interns or employees.

For more information about the King County Parent Coalition (a program of The Arc of King County), visit

www.arcofkingcounty.org/our-services/king-county-parent-coalition

For more information about the LWSD Transition Academy, visit www.lwsd.org/school/ta

To see more photos of Andrew, please visit Reporter staff photographer Chad Coleman’s photo blog, Focus Northwest

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