Moving in, moving up for special needs

Students are learning life skills with a Winslow apartment.

Barbara Brewis is looking for volunteers to unload the dishwasher.

The circle of young people ensconced in comfortable chairs ringing the small living room don’t exactly leap to their feet with enthusiasm.

It’s a scene one might see duplicated in other island homes. What makes this exchange unique is that the family setting – an apartment in the Eagle’s Nest complex – is really a classroom, where students who qualify for special education services are learning skills to live independently.

From unpacking boxes to the homely maintenance chores, each skill marks another step on the road to autonomy.

“Who wants to help?” Brewis repeats. “We need two people on the dishwasher. How about Becca and Michelle?”

The girls cheerfully comply.

Twenty-year-old Rebecca Nickel, Alex Allen, 19, Michelle Thompson, 20, William Connor, 19, and Taylor Anderson, 18, are among the students guided through tasks that range from sweeping hallways to vacuuming around windowsills.

The work is done under the direction of Brewis, the Bainbridge Island School District’s adult living program coordinator, aided by paraeducator Michelle Bruneau, who serves as job and community coach. Their first task – moving in furniture and goods donated by parents and Bainbridge Rotary – is almost done.

Dishware in neat rows fills cupboards. A futon covered with a bright blanket dominates the living room of the one-bedroom apartment. An office where students will work on resumes, and where the business of administering the program will be centered, has been organized.

A small stack of framed art with images of bridges, leans against one office wall. The pictures capture the essence of the Adult Living Program mission, Brewis says: spanning a gap to move forward.

The Eagle’s Nest space, into which the students “moved” last week, is a new feature of post-graduation services offered to special education students until the age of 21.

Those services are a feature of the “transition” planning mandated by federal law that starts by the time a student is 14 and becomes increasingly focused over the four years of high school.

The post-secondary years round out the “transition services” aimed at getting students integrated into their community.

Beside a chance to learn daily living skills, transition services might offer students support in vocational training, employment and continuing education.

The move off-campus to a site like Eagle’s Nest is a “best-practices” approach built on the belief that the best way to learn to live in the world is to venture forth, with help.

“The goal is to get them out of here and into the community,” Brewis said, “but come back here for support.”

In keeping with the special education law that mandates that each child’s needs be considered individually, the Eagle’s Nest young people have a lot of one-on-one with staff to help them carry out plans tailored to each.

Support can mean post-secondary education or training, continuing and adult education, or helping students become volunteers for community organizations.

The apartment also serves as a base of operations for kids who work.

When a student starts a new job, a “job coach” often accompanies the neophyte worker to provide extra support. That way, the employer doesn’t have to expend extra time teaching skills and getting young workers up to speed.

Brewis helped Allen, who began working at Ace Hardware last June, build the stamina to last his five-and a half-hour shifts. Anderson is employed by both Bainbridge Island Cycle Shop and Safeway.

Staff might also help students learn to structure leisure time.

“We’re really helped a whole lot by the park district,” Brewis said. “They’ve been wonderful. We use their programs all the time.”

According to Special Services Director Clayton Mork, it has only been in the last two or three years that there have been enough special education students at the high school level to consider a program like Adult Living Program.

“Critical mass does have something to do with it,” he said.

This year, the number of BHS students with developmental disabilities has doubled from last year’s eight to 16.

The district wasn’t caught off-guard in transition planning, however, because improving transition services has been a focus for the Bainbridge schools’ special education program since a report by an independent consultant five years ago pointed to the need for improvement.

“We’ve had a transition project team in place for a number of years,” Mork said. “This (apartment) is one of the outcomes of that. It’s a very exciting project.”

For the students at Adult Living Program and the staff who support them, this year promises to be one of exciting challenges. And, they’re ready to take on more.

“We have some real capable young adults here who are looking for employment,” Brewis said. “We’re looking for job opportunities and internships.

“And we still need a microwave and a vacuum cleaner.”

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