Today, more and more high school students with disabilities are graduating and getting jobs, or continuing on to post-secondary education at major colleges and universities. With the introduction of new assistance tools at the high school and college levels, students in need of special services are finding it easier to prepare for the responsibilities of adulthood. For some Winona parents of special needs high school students, the idea of losing the support their child has had in primary and secondary school can be an unpleasant thought. However, with the help of the Winona Senior High School Special Education department, students can gain access to new support systems.
During an open house Monday night, nearly 20 vendors set up shop temporarily in the Winona Senior High School (WSHS) Media Room to educate parents on the various education and career options their disabled child has available. Special Education teacher Patti Darbo coordinated the event with area colleges and local organizations to provide the tools parents need to help their child succeed.
“As these students go through…high school and prepare to graduate, many parents of a child with a disability start looking at what options are available after high school,” Darbo said. “This is a one-stop shop for parents to see that there is more out there than they know.”
Representatives from Winona State University (WSU) and St. Mary’s University (SMU) provided information about their student success centers, which promote the academic and personal development of all students. According to SMU Disability Services Coordinator Karen Hemker, new technologies and a more adaptive curriculum at the school has "opened the door" for more students with disabilities.
“With the use of more assisting technologies, we are able to provide that accommodation that they are entitled to by law,” Hemker explained. “For example, a student may take longer to read a text book, but if they are given an alternative form of material such as an audio book, they could get through the material much faster. We just need to adapt to their best way of learning.”
From note takers and tutors to iPads and Smart Pens, students have an array of services available to them at both colleges. With an iPad, SMU students with disabilities can use a variety of different applications to learn in the classroom. The Smart Pen is the latest technology in note taking. Everything the student writes is recorded and can be played back later. All the student has to do is touch the tip of the pen next to the first sentence on any part of their lecture notes, and the Smart Pen plays that section of the lecture.
“It uses a speech to text format that continues to improve the students' learning abilities,” Hemker said.
WSU Director of Disability Services Nancy Dumke said these technologies offer hundreds of thousands more students the opportunity get a quality post-secondary experience.
“The fact that we have these tools accessible to students with disabilities is huge,” Dumke said.
While college may be the path of some, others choose the work force after graduating high school. WSHS juniors and seniors interested in getting a head start in a job that interests them are involved in the Work Experience Program. This popular program not only counts for school credit, but also puts a little money in their pockets. More than 50 local employers have teamed with local schools to give students the opportunity to explore different careers, develop job skills, and increase their confidence.
“Job coaches assist the students in the first few weeks of the job, wherever it may be,” Darbo explained. “The student learns how to be a productive member of the team, and we work with the company to get the student hired after they complete the program. It’s a win-win for everyone.”
While in school, the students work varied schedules at a job of their choice. A starting salary of $2 an hour isn’t much, but the promise of minimum wage motivates senior Brandon Comero, 17, to do his best.
“I go to work for about two hours and I get free transportation,” Comero said of his job at Dollar Tree. “I get paid pretty good money and you always need that. I stock shelves, vacuum and do whatever there is to do. I also wear a uniform that I like.”
Comero said that working at Dollar Tree, Madison Elementary School, and Ground Round has given him real-world experience that he hopes to take use in a career after he graduates high school.
“The students study math and science and all the curriculum they are required to study by law. But they also read material on what it means to be a good worker and what it means to be an ethical employee,” Darbo said. “We all learn and gain from working together.”
Outside of academia, kids will be kids, and they like to have fun. Project Compass coordinator Helen Newell provided parents with literature on the wide range of activities available in the community. For the past 22 years, Project Compass has offered customized classes for those with disabilities which empower them to realize their full potential.
“The members of Project Compass are almost like a family, a strong support group for one another,” Newell said. “We offer lots of fun outings to the bowling alley and YMCA pool, but we also offer reading, math, and sign language courses. Like I’ve always said, it’s easier to learn when you’re having fun.”
Project Compass also specializes in family workshops that focus on understanding and working with a family member with a mental or physical disability. Newell said the overwhelmingly positive feedback received from workshops is what keeps Project Compass going today.
“We don’t see those differences the way some people do,” Newell said. “Instead, we encourage and support every person who comes through our door.”
WSHS has more literature on options available to students in the counselors' offices. Darbo said the need for special services will always be there, and it is her goal to continue to meet those demands.
“We want to reach out to every student of every ability level and recognize that some disabilities may be hidden,” she said. “We have a wide array of services available to our students and we want to create a greater awareness. I’m proud to be a part of a school system that makes room for everyone.”
For more information about disability services provided at WSHS or literature about services for students after graduation, contact Patti Darbo at 507-494-1660 or Mindy Reinardy, Transition Coordinator, at 507-494-1661.