NEW LENOX – Amanda Kovacic’s memory can astonish people.
When Kovacic, 21, of Frankfort was young, her grandfather was in the hospital and her mom left to check on him. Kovacic was home with her dad and siblings when her brother began crying.
“My dad was like, ‘Why are you crying?’ and I said, ‘Maybe he wants 13-15-13,’ ” she remembered. “My dad was like, ‘13-15-13?’ I said ‘Mom.’ ”
Kovacic can correlate numbers with the alphabet off the top of her head. It’s one of the many skills she uses throughout her day in the L.I.F.E. Transition Program at Lincoln-Way Central High School.
The program – like similar ones at high schools in Joliet, Plainfield and Lockport – helps students with special needs, like Kovacic, transition to life outside of school by developing social, vocational and daily living skills.
Transition programs connect students to community resources at an important time in their lives while they remain in high school, said Mary Harrison, Lincoln-Way special services director. The program exposes students to outside agencies such as Trinity Services and Cornerstone Inc.
“Once [the students] are gone, they have to navigate those waters by themselves. We’re here to help them,” she said.
Following federal and state guidelines, students with special needs can remain in high school programs until they are 22. After that, they rely on social service agencies – such as Trinity, Cornerstone and the Will-Grundy Center for Independent Living – for employment and independent living.
Many educators running transition programs say they are becoming more important for young people as funding declines for area social service agencies providing for the same needs.
The Lincoln-Way L.I.F.E program has helped Kovacic learn life skills and gain vocational opportunities. She works for both the village of Manhattan and the Frankfort Chamber of Commerce, performing clerical duties. Her mother, Char, said her daughter had a brain injury when she was young that led to a blood disorder, which affected her mental capacities.
“For us, [L.I.F.E] has been a godsend of a program,” Char Kovacic said. “Amanda feels more confident, and she loves working and she loves being a productive member of society.”
Building on talents
Harrison said students in the program, such as Kovacic, have talents that teachers try to develop. In Kovacic’s case, Harrison said she has good social skills.
“In addition to developing those people skills, which is strong for her, we ask, how can we expand on that?” Harrison said.
Students in transition programs at Joliet Township High School District 204 and Lockport Township High School 205 also work on developing independent living and vocational skills. The Joliet transition program is located on the city’s East Side, close to many agencies that also can help students.
“[The transition program] is for those who are not going to be college-bound but will need a little help,” said Becky Kemp, Joliet high school transition program coordinator. “Some students are capable of having jobs, but it’s difficult with seeking out jobs and interviewing. Our ultimate goal is independence.”
Lockport high school’s program is tailored to meet the needs of students with disabilities, since they have a wide variety, said Angela Huntington, Lockport high school special education director.
“[Employers] are hesitant to hire, but our program has made a tremendous job connecting with the community … and having them learn about our community,” she said.
More reliance on
Enrollment for Lincoln-Way’s transition program fluctuates. But officials expect enrollment at Lockport and Joliet high school’s transition programs to increase next school year. Huntington said she believes enrollment is rising because more parents are recognizing these services are available.
She also believes parents are relying on these programs more because of decreased funding for local social services.
Lincoln-Way’s transition program, which began this year, became sustainable enough for Lincoln-Way that officials plan to move some students from its Frankfort-based Transition House to Central High School next school year. The program was operated under Special Education District 843.
The move met with criticism in February, with one parent saying housing the program at Lincoln-Way Central would lead to overcrowding and an imbalanced student-teacher ratio. Harrison has said the classrooms will not be crowded and that student numbers fluctuate throughout the day.
Plans for the future
Kovacic will be a part of the Lincoln-Way program for two years. This school year is her first. When she leaves, she said she wants to work at a buffet restaurant and be a server. She likes that the job is busy and social.
Char Kovacic has watched her daughter gain more independence under the transition program and she’s impressed Kovacic has two paying jobs.
“I have seen her blossom and grow just her one year time being in this program,” she said.