Program helps disabled adults gain independence

WOODSTOCK – An innovative new program at Central High School in Woodstock is teaching adults with disabilities how to live an independent lifestyle.

L.I.F.E., which stands for Learning Independency For Everyday, is a post-graduate program in its first year of existence at Central. It is available to adults with disabilities who are 18-21 years old.

At the moment, the L.I.F.E. program has 13 students.

The program was the brainchild of Melissa Hensley, Central’s principal. “She wanted to give students the opportunity to enhance the skills they received [in grades] 9-12,” said Heather Miller, one of the teachers in the program.

According to Miller, students can sharpen their skills in areas of independent living, employability, interpersonal communication and community participation. This program has the goal of making students “career-ready” for local jobs and businesses.

In a specific sense, she said this program is designed to teach the students how to live on their own. Every aspect of the program has been created with the goal of being independent in mind.

One aspect that Miller stressed is that the program centers on students who want to enhance these skills. “They have to buy in to it and it has to have meaning to them,” added Miller.

The chief way this is accomplished is by giving the students control of the classroom. According to Miller, everything from the way the desks and chairs are arranged to the day-to-day activities and even classroom jobs are all based on what the students wanted.

Miller explained that the program is essentially teaching students how to live on their own. This includes having a class-based system of currency called Valley Pikes that students individually manage.

Miller said the students keep checkbooks of their Valley Pikes. These checkbooks are used in day-to-day transactions of classroom items.

The classroom contains a store with items such as jewelry and snacks for the students to purchase. There is also a catalogue with higher priced items students can save for. For example, Miller said that a few of the students are fans of Pokémon cards.

The price for a pack of Pokémon cards at the L.I.F.E. classroom is 80 pikes. “That would take them a couple of weeks to [save for],” Miller said.

“They earn [Valley Pikes] through good behavior or good jobs,” said Miller.

The students created the rules that govern whether or not they lose or receive pikes. The rules are not unlike daily practices that the average citizen deals with — being on time and doing work in a timely manner.

“They also have rent that they have to pay Mrs. Hensley every month,” said Miller. This monthly rent also included a lease agreement that was physically drawn up.

Another major way that students are taught independence is through various classroom jobs. The classroom contains a Practical Assessment Exploration Lab where students can take on various jobs in areas such as consumer science and business marketing.

Miller noted that students fill out a checklist of items for each job every day. “Once they get used to the style of checklists, we can implement this into the community setting,” said Miller.

The lists contain each step the student has to take in order to complete the task. In addition, the cards list times in which the students must complete the task.

According to Miller, the in-class jobs also work as a way to measure how work-ready the students are. For example, the times on the cards work to measure how quickly and accurately the students can complete their tasks.

“From there, we can do some assessments to [measure] the amount of assistance required, their performance score and their work rate,” explained Miller.

Two of the tests that they use to assess student readiness are the Brigance Transition Skills Inventory and the PAES Behavior Rating Scale.

Miller explained that students who go out into the community and work with potential employers use the PAES scale.

Those students receive feedback from their job coaches or employers that is then used in the classroom. “If they need to work on their interpersonal skills, we can do that in the classroom,” Miller said.

Miller added that the assessments are then used to match the students with jobs within their community. According to Miller, they are working with Valley Workforce in order to have a plan for the students when they complete the program.

“Each plan is person-centered,” explained Miller.

In fact, Miller sees herself as a liaison between agencies like Valley Workforce and the students’ families. The idea, according to Miller, is for the students to have a plan and a smooth transition once they exit the program.

“It cannot be job-carving, it has to be an employable position,” Miller said.

Miller noted that students could only be in the program until they are 21 years old. At the same time, Miller said that if a student feels “work-ready,” then he or she can exit the program.

“Students who need more support, obviously, will be here longer,” said Miller.

From day one, everything in the L.I.F.E. program has essentially been a life-lesson.

“When we first came in, the room wasn’t quite ready yet,” said Miller. That is another real-life lesson that Miller noted has been important in providing the students.

“When you go to move in to an apartment or buy a house, things are never going to meet the timelines that you have established,” Miller said. “They were really resilient … and worked through that process.”

Miller said that the students now rely on each other more than when the program started. “They have really embraced the concept that we are working on independent living,” Miller noted.

In addition, Miller said that the overwhelmingly positive response from the community has helped the students. “It is great to be a part of it and it’s great just to see the innovation,” Miller said.

Miller acknowledged that there is more work to be done. “We’re continuing to [see] how we can improve and make it better.”

Contact staff writer Kevin Green at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or kgreen@nvdaily.com