Path to independence
For some students, graduation day is not the end of their high school experience.
Some graduates with developmental disabilities choose to continue their education at Verona Area High School until the age of 21, with a program that teaches job and life skills to help them succeed in their post-school life.
While technically those in the “Functional Vocational Program for 18-to- 21-year-olds” are not students anymore, it’s run through and funded by the Verona Area School District and the group meets in a room called the “Apartment” in the school.
The Functional Vocational Program has multiple components, including paid and volunteer work, physical activity and weekly outings to different community businesses and gathering places, such as dentist’s offices. It offers a chance for the students, their parents and local groups and businesses that get involved to learn what will be needed to succeed in their future.
“The purpose … would be to work on employability skills, life skills, all those kinds of things,” said special education instructor Fritz Wendorf, who has been involved with special education and seen the program working in the district since 1998.
Students become eligible when they apply for adult with disability services through the county and then apply for the program through the school district during their senior year of high school.
Rikki Christman, 19, is in his second year of the program, and he volunteers in the school office, at the library and at the Marquee Ballroom.
“I’m learning how to be independent,” Christman said, adding that he hopes the volunteer jobs he is currently doing will lead to paid work while in the program and as he continues in life. “I’m actually glad to be working with the teachers; they are really helpful. And being able to make new friends, it’s very good.”
Businesses get involved with the Functional Vocational Program for a range of reasons, but regardless of intention, Wendorf said the students almost always quickly gain the respect and affection of coworkers and managers.
“These young people become such an endearing part of their team, and they really embrace them for who they are,” she said. “Because you hear disability and then you’re kind of like, ‘What does that mean?’
Once they see it’s just another human being and they’re really capable, they’re like ‘OK.’”
Those relationships and the students’ work often lead to continued jobs after leaving the high school program and transitioning into an adult program, Wendorf said.
Current student Chris Larson, 19, works at Latitude in Verona, where he sorts and delivers mail and helps with outgoing checks.
Lisa Johnson, HR generalist at Latitude, looks forward to Larson coming into work every Tuesday and Thursday, and said the days he does not work are “disappointing.”
“Every day he comes in with a positive attitude, he’s happy. You say hello to him and he smiles,” Johnson said. “It’s just a joy to see him.”
Wendorf said the program typically focuses on what skills a student already has and what skills he or she needs to develop when working with businesses and deciding where a student should be placed, and they make sure not to “inundate” the small local businesses that are helping out.
Christy Cook’s son Brian, who suffers from “pretty severe” autism, graduated from the program in June and works at Pizza Hut and for Mark West doing part assembly.
While neither of those jobs were the same he held while he was in the Functional Vocational Program, the skills he acquired from working at The Heights and the AmericInn hotel while in the program were vital in setting up his future, Cook said.
“He gained, first of all, the work ethics that you get up and go to work and earn a living and this is your schedule and you work your full shift,” she said. “He gets the idea of going in and his break time and work ethics. He doesn’t think because he’s handicapped that he can sit home and watch TV all day.”
Cook said the other parts of the program, such as the trips to Target, helped Brian learn how to be disciplined and controlled in daily activities like shopping.
“You’re not going to buy toys or videos every time you go to Target. You’re going to buy items you need in your daily life. He had to learn that,” she said, adding that before the program he always wanted to get a movie or toy when they went to Target.
Cook said she was lucky to have lived in the VASD, and said the counselors understanding parents’ and students’ needs and worries is key to the program’s success.
“As a parent, you start to get a little nervous… They know that and they make sure that these kids are ready to go out into the world,” she said. “They do everything they can to make sure that happens.”
Eventually, the participants in the program have to leave school, as it only covers them up to age 21. When that happens, most transition into a similar program through Dane County that will help them for the rest of their lives.
By that time, Wendorf said, the program aims to have a student working 20 hours per week, often split among multiple jobs.
That number is important, she said, because the county program determines whether someone can sustain that level of work, and therefore that level of income, for the rest of their life.
“So they’re saying based on their income level right now, that’s what they can sustain throughout their lifetime. These are young adults who need paid work,” she said. “(Businesses) don’t have to keep them at your job for the rest of their lives, but if you can employ them so they can exit high school with this many paid hours, it’s huge.”
While the school’s job coaches and support staff no longer work with the student and their family directly after they leave the program, Wendorf said they will often hear stories of how they are doing, whether that means growth, a small misstep or a lost job.
The program has 19 students this year, and Wendorf said she expects it to continue to grow, based on the size of the incoming group of freshmen with special needs.
Wendorf said she is looking into options for moving the program off the VAHS campus.
“Hopefully you can work more directly on life skills, and it’s like their peer group shifts, so they kind of aren’t caught up in the high school end of it,” she said. “So we want them to move on and start that next phase. Have a clean break from high school.”
Examples from other districts that have taken their program off site include using churches, houses donated by real estate companies or businesses with extra space, Wendorf said.
Regardless of facilities, Wendorf said the program’s benefits for students are hard to quantify, and the inspiration they get from it is passed onto the job coaches and instructors who work with them.
“When a student starts that first job, and they get that actual first paycheck, it’s kind of the priceless thing,” she said. “There’s no other way to describe it, how excited they are that they’ve earned their own income, that they worked for that money, and it’s really incredible. That worth and that value, it’s huge.”