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Continued: Lessons in living for special-ed students

  • Article by: NORMAN DRAPER , Star Tribune
  • Last update: July 15, 2008 - 12:33 AM

This classroom has no desks, no textbooks, no computers and no maps or posters hanging from the walls.

Instead, it has a kitchen, plenty of dishes and utensils, a dinette set, a TV and DVD player, a washer and dryer unit, as well as the usual living-room complement of easy chairs and a lamp.

This classroom is for those whose hardest subject is how to function day to day.

The assignments include making a bed, calling someone on the phone, cooking a simple meal and doing laundry.

The room is a facsimile of a studio apartment. It's one of the features of the new $25.4 million South Education Center, which recently opened in Richfield and targets special-education students and those who have trouble adapting to normal classrooms.

Much of the new building is dedicated to transition programs aimed at preparing special-education students for living and working in the community.

These kids actually have to learn and spend years developing those skills," said Laura Keller-Gautsch, executive director of special education for Intermediate District 287, the consortium of 13 north and west suburban school districts that runs the South Education Center. "The more independent we can make them, the less dependent they are on adult resources. It's an investment."

The South Education Center will open for its first regular school year this fall with 350 students. Of those, 230 are special-education students ages 18 to 21 who must grapple with making the move from school to an independent or semi-independent living situation. This summer, about 50 students are attending a one-month program designed for those who cannot bridge the gap in learning that occurs between school years.

"It's like a college for life skills," said Richfield parent Beryl Taylor-Edwards, whose 19-year-old son, Johnathan Taylor, is a student in the life-skills program and will be using the apartment classroom this fall.

Taylor was born with a host of physical disabilities, including difficulty using his hands and slow reaction times, his mother said. He has trouble with such rudimentary skills as hanging up a shirt in the closet and learning how to use a stove or microwave without being burned. The lessons-in-living transition program can help. It also can help teach him that he can't sit around expecting to be waited on anymore.

"This is great that they have this," Taylor-Edwards said. "This is what you do in your own living space. It's not just mom getting on your case; it's the school, too."

Taylor will continue to use the transition program until he is 21, Taylor-Edwards said. How much independence he can have remains to be seen.

"I doubt if John will ever be cut loose in the community unsupervised," Taylor-Edwards said. "With his delayed responses, he can never cross a street by himself. We, at this point, are working toward the maximum amount of independence we can create here."

In the apartment classroom last week, it was clear that independence comes in baby steps.

The South Education Center, which just opened for summer school, put on a demonstration Tuesday to show how the apartment classroom works. Special-education teacher Marlene Hui and two other staff members were putting four students, all physically or mentally disabled to varying degrees, through the paces of making a simple dessert -- a muffin tray's worth of strawberry pineapple cups.

"These are not the highest-ability students," Hui said. "If we have higher-ability students, they would be able to do all this independently and probably use more challenging recipes."

The simple tasks got divvied up. Jake Brown, 20, and Jeff Sandhofer, 21, peeled the banana and mashed it up. Kaylie Huxtable, 19, opened the can of crushed pineapple and put the paper liners in the muffin tin. Rachel Becker, 21, who uses a wheelchair, dumped the yogurt and strawberries into the mixing bowl. They all took turns stirring the mix, which was then put in the refrigerator's freezer.

"This recipe's good, and it tastes like Popsicles," said Sandhofer, who lives in a group home in Edina, after sampling the finished product.

The recipe they used comes in two forms: one with just words for those who can read, and another with pictures for those who can't read.

When the school fills up this fall, the apartment classroom will be put to continuous use. According to Hui, a bed will materialize so students can practice making it, a skill not only relevant to life, but which could help in getting housekeeping jobs.

Norman Draper • 612-673-4547

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