Program helps ease Middle Park students into adult life
Talking about the transformative power of education is clichéd.
Teachers and school districts often refer to their programs in lofty, academic terms where the impacts are as philosophical as they are concrete. But for the students and parents participating in the Transitions Program at Middle Park High School (MPHS), the results are real and powerful, and the future looks bright.
The Transitions Program offers certain students from MPHS the opportunity to establish work mentorships in the county while also focusing on developing life skills, such as food budgeting and work scheduling. The MPHS Transition Program is part of the larger Special Education Department at the High School. Program Coordinator and MPHS Paraprofessional Lisa Atencio explained the focus of the program.
“The goal is to help the students become independent young adults,” she said. “The biggest part of the program is helping kids become employed in the community, or help them volunteer to gain skills so they can become ready for a job.”
The Transitions Program is open to any student from MPHS with an Individual Education Plan. An IEP is self explanatory in that it is an education plan tailor made for a specific student. Each student in the Special Ed. Dept. at MPHS has their own IEP, and each one is unique to the individual student. All students at MPHS with an IEP are technically a part of the Special Ed. Dept., though the degree of specialized help needed from the school district varies from students with very minor needs to those with severe needs.
The Transitions Program endeavors to empower students on the cusp of adulthood to work to their potential, and feel good about themselves and what they are accomplishing at the same time.
“What people don’t understand about young adults with disabilities is that if we don’t teach them to be more independent and start allowing them to be more independent then we are not helping them,” Atencio said.
The program works closely with several partners within the county and with YMCA of the Rockies – Snow Mountain Ranch. YMCA allows for students from the Transition Program to intern for six weeks at the ranch with the possibility of paid employment following the internship, depending on the availability of positions.
Vic Gardner, who participates in the Transition Program, was hired by YMCA at the beginning of the summer, following a multi-month internship program. The sense of achievement Vic felt from working and spending his own money was evident as soon as he started talking about his job.
“With work especially I am really proud of what I do,” he said.
Vic is one of five students in the MPHS Transitions Program. Last year, during a first-year trial period, the program had two student participants. One female student aged out of the program and four additional students enrolled for this school year, with Vic coming back for a second year.
Last fall the young man started his internship at YMCA. He interned throughout the year and in May he was offered a part-time paid position, working 28 hours a week. Vic works in the food service department at YMCA, usually helping out in the kitchen doing various tasks such as dishwasher, cook’s helper and prep cook work. He said working as a cook’s helper was his favorite job at YMCA.
Vic exuded a sense of accomplishment as he discussed his working life. He said he rotates through various jobs regularly to keep things interesting and to expose him to all aspects of the restaurant business. His schedule is four-days on, three-days off, leaving Vic with opportunities to enjoy his free time.
He relished talking about his living arraignment as well, staying in the facilities at Snow Mountain Ranch with three other roommates. It provides Vic with a much-needed sense of independence and also offers the potential for a social life away from his immediate family, something very important to most teenagers. His living arrangement at YMCA is re-evaluated every six months and there is the potential for Vic to be hired as full-time staff at YMCA in the future.
Vic’s mom Barbara was extremely enthusiastic about the Transitions Program and the opportunity for Vic to have such services provided in Grand County.
“Without the Transitions Program Vic would probably have to move out of the area,” she said. “I fully expected we would be down in Denver because there are programs like this there. Now he is in a healthy environment and the community people we have come in contact with at the Y have been so gracious and supportive of Vic. We know if it was just Vic going out and getting a job it would not be that same kind of environment.”
Thom Schnellinger, MPHS principal, echoed Barbara’s comments as he spoke to the value of having such programs in Grand County; keeping kids with unique needs close to their homes and families.
“They are our children,” Schnellinger said. “They belong in our community. They don’t need to be shuffled off to the Front Range.”
Schnellinger highlighted the fact the School District is only one part of the formula for helping special needs students achieve their potential. He spoke of the importance of partners such as Snow Mountain Ranch and the need for additional infrastructure within the area such as transportation and housing for young adults with special needs.
The Transition Program is open to students aged 18 to 21. One requirement is students must have completed their full high school curriculum before they can participate. While participating in the Transitions Program the students have technically completed their academic studies at MPHS but have not received their diplomas. Students in the Transitions Program receive their diplomas after they leave the program.
The program operates out of the gray modular building directly east of the Soccer Dome in Granby. The Town of Granby has donated the use of the building for the school year. Students in the Transitions Program meet there certain mornings for classes on topics ranging from health and nutrition to leisure and hobbies, helping the kids learn positive activities to enjoy during their spare time.
A fundraiser for the Transitions Program will be held Thursday, Sept. 17, from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Brick House 40 in Granby. Brick House 40 has agreed to donate 20 percent of all food sales on Thursday to the program.
The New Hong Kong Chinese Restaurant in Winter Park, Grand Pizza in Grand Lake and the Creekside Eatery in Fraser have all agreed to donate 20 percent of sales between the hours of 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Thursday to the Program. The event at Brick House 40 will include both a silent auction and live music.
Program Administrator Lisa Atencio said she hopes the community comes to see the truly positive real life impacts the Transitions Program has for the young people that participate, keeping them close to home with all the stability that entails.
“I hope that it grows,” she said. “So these young adults can get services and stay in Grand County and not have to move to a place like Denver. We can do it just by trying to make a positive impact.”
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