New Program Helps Developmentally Disabled Students Bridge Final Years of High School

Oct 21, 2016

For special education students, attitudes are changing. Barriers to employment, independent living and even college are being lowered. But there is a need for more specialized training for students with developmental disabilities, especially toward the end of high school. And a unique, year-round program is helping to fill that void.

It’s a weekday morning and Kelly Frey is taking a group of students on a field trip to Hadlock Field in Portland. Frey is a specialist with TOPS: Transition Outcome Program for Students. It’s designed to help developmentally disabled students in their 5th and 6th years of high school prepare for post graduation occupations and make the leap to life on their own.

“Oh look, what is that?” Frey says. “Oh, not our bus. That one is the South Portland bus. We’re looking for the Metro. Should be here in a minute.”

Today, the real focus of the field trip is to teach them to ride the bus.

Thatcher is a student at Cape Elizabeth who says he’s excited about his upcoming 20th birthday, and about a special project in the works.

Thatcher looks over Emily's shoulder as she colors
Credit Susan Sharon/maine public

Thatcher: “Excuse me, but who are you?”
Susan Sharon: “My name is Susan. I’m with Maine Public Radio. I’m following you guys on the bus.”
Thatcher: “Nice.”
SS: “Would that be okay?”
Thatcher: “Yeah, that’s nice.”

“I made a video for Tom Cruise and I might get to see him soon,” Thatcher says. “I’m very excited. He is busy but I know he won’t forget. He won’t forget about seeing me.”

Under Maine special ed. regulations, students like Thatcher can stay in public school if they’re not more than 20 years old and haven’t met their graduation requirements.

“So we have this population of students who are really accessing two additional years of high school many times and we wanted something different for them,” says Julie Olsen, director of instructional support for MSAD 51 which serves Cumberland and North Yarmouth.

About three years ago, she says, several special ed. directors started talking about ways they good give students some additional life skills training beyond the classroom.

“They had done four years of high school,” she says. “They had accessed really good programming in their district but they really needed a focus on transition planning and briding that gap from high school to adult services or college and career readiness in some way. And we wanted to build their community as well.”

Meaning their community of peers. So, last Fall they partnered with Strive, a South Portland-based agency that provides peer support, education and training to tweens, teens and young adults with intellectual and emotional disabilities. This year there are 12 school districts participating in the TOPS program. Some students come as many as five days a week. Strive’s associate director Pete Brown says its important for students to learn to be as independent as possible.

“Many of the students may have had an ed. tech with them all day everyday through their school career and our goal is to try to fade that support so students can be more successful and be more prepared for adult services,” Brown says.

Students work with vocational rehabilitation to explore different opportunities. They take classes in cooking and following recipes, sewing and managing money. The idea is to build confidence and raise their aspirations. Bridget has been practicing making a list and going to the grocery store.

Susan Sharon: “Have you done that by yourself yet?”
Bridget: “I tried it once but I was too scared.”
SS: “Oh, what was scary about it?”
Bridget: “I accidentally got the wrong thing and I had to do it again.”
SS: You mean you got the wrong item, something that you didn’t really need?”
Bridget: “Right. I was with Kelly that time.”

Students often need prodding and gentle reinforcement. But they do have dreams and they are setting goals. Bridget says she thinks about living with a roommate in her own house in Scarborough. And for parents, like Lisa Bell of Dayton, steering students toward these kinds of ideas is encouraging. Bell’s daughter, Emily, attends TOPS, and has an internship with a health clinic through her public school.

“She has some definite goals and objectives when it comes to work,” Bell says. “She loves anything to do with science and animals and biology. For example, the LifeFlight helicopter, she thinks that is the best job ever. Or working for the CDC.”

TOPS Students pose for photo outside of Hadlock Field
Credit Susan Sharon/maine public

Bell says she recognizes that her daughter has been fortunate to have gotten strong support in school and at Strive through programs like TOPS. And she’s come to believe that Emily can do much more than she originally thought possible. Brown is hopeful that TOPS can spread to other communities in Maine. It will, he says, continue to break down the biggest barrier for students like Emily and Thatcher and Bridget and Cole: the prejudice of low expectations.

Cole: “Are we going to the bus now?”
Susan Sharon: “We are.”
Cole: “To the bus we go!”

This story is made possible by a grant from the Doree Taylor Charitable Foundation.