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School programs help special education students in school and beyond
Eleven-year-old Katrina Turk waits for sister Rose and mother Subrina Turk to eat pizza after church June 2. - photo by NAT GURLEY

Rose Turk stands impatiently at Frances Meadows Aquatic Center, waiting for her sunscreen application.

She says she is excited to be a recent high school graduate, and looking forward to beginning a training program in the fall, but at the moment all she cares about is getting into the cool, refreshing water.\

Turk, 20, was one of the few students to earn a special education diploma in this year’s class of graduates, and is an example of how the school systems are working with students, teachers and parents to make the transition between school and career easier for disabled students.

She graduated this year because, as her mother put it, “it was time.”

“She had a friend graduating, and we had already talked about Rose graduating, and so I thought, ‘Well, let’s go ahead and do that,’” said Subrina Turk, Rose’s mother.

Special education students can remain in K-12 school until they are age 22.

Rose, who was born with Down syndrome and then went through heart surgery, has been in school practically her entire life, starting at a special school for therapy when she was only a few months old and then going through the Hall County school system beginning at age 5.

Now, it’s time to leave that setting, especially since her close friend Ryan Clayton also was graduating.

Clayton, 21, is diagnosed with a Pervasive Developmental Disorder, which is on the autism spectrum.

“There are several different delays and disabilities in it,” his mother, Gigi Clayton, explained. “We say, it’s a little bit of this and a little bit of that to make Ryan.”

Both Turk and Clayton attended North Hall High School, enjoying the traditional rites of teenagers, including going to prom together. Gigi Clayton said that her son fully took advantage of his senior year.

“I wanted him to have the whole senior experience,” she said. “He really had a good last year.”

As official graduates, the two friends have helped contribute to the increasing statistics of special-needs students earning their high school diplomas.

A diploma well-earned

There are nearly 3,000 students in special education classes in the Hall County school system, with the schools not only meeting but exceeding the state’s target rate of those students graduating with general education diplomas.

Hall County exceeded the state target of 36.7 percent of students graduating with a general education diploma in 2011-2012, graduating 39.4 percent instead, according to Kathleen Culver, special education director with Hall County Schools. The state rate was 35.2 percent.

Most students with developmental disabilities will receive a general education diploma, which is the same diploma and requirements that most people think of when they think of a high school diploma, Culver said.

Some students with more significant cognitive disabilities will go through what is called the Georgia Alternate Assessment, which is a portfolio assessment of the student’s overall work in school. By meeting those requirements, which are set through a team including the student, teachers and guardians, the student then receives a special education diploma.

“Which is a high school diploma,” Culver pointed out. “It is just noted as being special education.”

Even with a high school diploma, there can be an extra step for students with disabilities in transitioning from school to employment or post-secondary education.

Rose is taking advantage of one of the transition programs offered by the school system.

“We started looking,” Subrina Turk said, “and her teacher was looking at some options. We had talked about working at Goodwill, or something like that. Just different options. And the teacher found there’s a thing called Project Success at Lanier Career Academy.”

Project Success and Project Search are the two programs offered by the school system to aid in that transition, Culver said, with Project Search being a nationwide program that, in Hall County, offers a one-year internship program at Northeast Georgia Health System for special-needs students. That program in Hall has been recognized as one of the top three programs in the country, Culver said.

“Project Success is a transitions program implemented by the Hall County school system,” Culver said. “There are three classrooms with 26 students, three instructors and five job coaches.”

The Project Success program has worksite agreements with companies like Walgreens, New Horizons Lanier Park and Oakwood Occasions Catering at the Hall County government building, Culver said. It’s almost like a continuation of school, with the focus being on helping students develop lifelong skills for the workforce.

“Instructors and job coaches work closely to educate the families of these students on future planning and post-graduation options,” Culver continued. She said that many students move on from their internships and training programs to find employment, saying that sometimes the student will go on to work at the same place where they received their training or move on to another location that can use their skills.

Coming out of Project Search, the employment rate for interns in 2011-2012 was 90 percent, Culver said.

She added that both Project Search and Project Success, while they are transitional programs, are treated just like actual employment, with the student being required to interview and apply just as with any other job.

‘The angels brought him,’ mother says

Beginning in the fall, Rose will be working at a café at Lanier Career Academy.

“She will be doing some laundry and some other things in a restaurant environment,” her mother said. “This program would teach her a skill. We call it her college.”

Ryan will stay at home for a while longer. His mother, Gigi, used to work in the Hall school system in the special education department, and was actually Ryan’s teacher.

“He was 7 years old when he came to live with us,” she said. “We tell him we adopted each other — that the angels brought him to Mama and Daddy.”

With her professional background in special education, Gigi said there are some things she wants to continue to work on with Ryan in a sort of home-school environment. She said she thinks she may try to get him doing some volunteer work.

“I’d rather him volunteer at this point,” she said. She also thought he may find something on a part-time basis.

The Gainesville school system had 22 special education graduates this year, according to Jimmie Minor, director of special education. For those students, the school works with the state’s Vocational Rehabilitation Agency.

“Our students are certainly hooked up with them if it’s appropriate, and that usually starts their junior year,” Minor said. “We do have special education students that move on to college as well as straight into competitive employment.”

While Gainesville schools do not use Project Search or similar programs to provide a transition between school and work, Minor said that the city schools are always looking for new ways to help students make that switch.

She said many students will go through Rehabilitation Industries of Northeast Georgia after graduation. RING helps people with developmental disabilities develop skills that they can use either in jobs RING provides or in other places of employment.

“It’s a sheltered workshop,” she said.

“Anything that we can find, or do, that will help our students transition into adulthood, we will certainly try to move in that direction,” Minor said.

Dedication of school teachers credited

According to Culver, the Hall school system has exceeded the state target of 80 percent for special education students to move on to college, competitive employment, post-secondary education and other employment in 2012. The state rate was 76.16 percent; Hall’s was at 93.86 percent of special education graduates successfully transitioning to some form of post-schooling program.

Gigi Clayton attributes the numbers to the quality of the teachers.

“People don’t know what these teachers go through, and the dedication that they have to have with these students,” she said. “For Ryan, they are his mamas when I’m not there.”

And, while the statistics paint a successful picture, what matters more to Rose and Ryan, and their families, is to be able to continue living independently.

“We’re so proud of her,” Subrina Turk said about Rose. “She’s just such a blessing, because she has taught us so much about patience and about tolerance.”

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