Huntley High School special education student Tess Podraza, 18, wants to be more independent, but to reach that level she'll need more confidence and sharper life skills.
She and her family hope a new program through Huntley Area School District 158 will give her both.
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Life Instruction Guiding Huntley Transition is designed to give Tess and her peers support and preparation for the adult world. As special education students, they are entitled to public school services until they turn 22.
"Once they have completed their graduation requirements, we really want them to move out of the high school, just to have them feel like they graduated," said Liz Kienzle, the program's creator. "We're not teaching U.S. history or science anymore. We're doing functional academics, but it's going to be very life-based."
High school graduation is a scary time for young adults with special needs and their families. Access to state funding is based on a lottery that sometimes leaves people with disabilities waiting years to take advantage of services.
The program aims to ease the transition, preparing students who will be able to hold jobs with skills to do so and introducing many to the social services they'll need throughout their adult lives.
While Tess is less than thrilled the new program won't give her the opportunity to sleep in -- it starts at 8:30 a.m., just like high school -- she is looking forward to becoming more independent because of it.
Her mom, Tia Podraza, is excited about that too.
"I'm really hoping that the program is going to give her some more confidence," Podraza said. "A lot of it is going to reinforce things that she learned and make her stronger with her life skills."
The program's innovative strength is in its structure. It is tailored to the needs of each student with three main tiers clustering students based on their abilities. Tier 1, where Tess will start, takes place at the Deicke Park building in Huntley. Her curriculum for this year includes classes such as math smarts, effective writing, vocational skills, health and fitness, and reading for life.
Tiers 2 and 3 -- where Tess hopes to end up -- will be taught at McHenry County College, preparing students for associate degrees or work training programs. The students will actually attend MCC classes in some cases and complete certificates. In both locations, though, it will be Huntley High School special education teachers primarily working with their students.
For years, students who finished their graduation requirements at Huntley High went on to transition programs offered by the Special Education District of McHenry County. The education district is a cooperative made up of 18 member school districts to provide special education services the individual schools can't provide on their own.
A common complaint about the district's transition program, though, was that it was too basic for some students.
Vida Swiatly, of Lake in the Hills, said the district's program was wonderful but her 20-year-old son Mark fell through the cracks a bit. She wants him to be challenged more and better prepared to hold a job.
Mark, who has autism, works at Noodles and Co., but at this point it is with the help of a job coach. His long-term success hinges on an ability to navigate the workplace alone.
Shrinking funds at the state and federal level leave many adults like Mark without services they need to live full lives. He is in the state's lottery for services but Swiatly has no idea if or when his name will be pulled.
Mark is taking a certificate program at MCC and hopes to graduate with enough computer skills to find a job. His mom worries, though, that his skill level won't matter.
"You're still faced with the discrimination factor," Swiatly said. "Will he be able to get a job working on computers and will they trust him?"
Developing relationships with area businesses and nonprofits through the program's job skills training will serve the dual purpose of giving the Huntley grads work experience and hopefully forging pathways for future jobs.
"Because it's a new program, we're just anxious to see how it all turns out," Swiatly said.
Kienzle spent much of last year researching existing options across the region and organizing the program, which she hopes will be a better alternative for young adults of varying abilities.
The program will function as a partnership with MCC, the Huntley Park District and community organizations such as Pioneer Center for Human Services and the Northern Illinois Special Recreation Association.
Pioneer Center is the leading service organization for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities in McHenry County. It offers skills training, housing options and employment services to adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
While the center has faced funding cuts in recent years from the state and federal governments, Sandy Montalvo, director of admissions, said the organization is looking to expand its services. The need is great and waiting lists are long so Pioneer Center is trying to get more creative with its revenue sources and find new grant opportunities.
By partnering with organizers of the program, Montalvo hopes to ease the transition into adulthood for those with the highest need. Students will start a relationship with the organization most likely to serve them throughout their lives.
While the program is new and untested, it has caused a good deal of excitement in parents and service providers alike.
"It sounds very creative and very goal driven," Montalvo said. "I think it's going to be a great program."
A ribbon cutting is set for 6 to 7 p.m. Aug. 19 at Deicke Park, 11419 Route 47 in Huntley, and the entire community is invited. The first day of classes is Aug. 21.