Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Wisconsin school district has apartment that helps teach cognitively disabled students life skills

From The Fond du Lac Reporter in Wis. In the picture, student Alyssa Brosi, standing, talks with board members Eric Everson and Kathy Nagle during a Fond du Lac School Board member tour of the district's new apartment for cognitively disabled students at Riverside School.

This school year is different for Tamika Moody. She wakes up with a smile on her face, eager to get to her classroom.

“She’s motivated, has a sense of belonging,” said Aricka Moody of her 18-year-old daughter.

As a young adult with cerebral palsy, Tamika joins six other adult students learning life skills in the Fond du Lac School District’s new CWD (Children With Disabilities) apartment classroom.

Opened this fall, the two-bedroom apartment housed at Riverside Elementary School is the shining star in a new program called Cardinal Working Independently Nurturing Goals for Success (WINGS).

Curriculum developed for the program is based on helping cognitively disabled students develop the life skills they need to become independent, said John Whitsett, director of curriculum and instruction.

“We are pretty proud of the way this program has developed since it addresses a clear need and involves the district, the community, county and city agencies, and most importantly, the students. The facility will be an excellent teaching station for students who certainly have a clear need,” he said.

By state law, school districts are required to provide services for children with disabilities up to age 21.

“Obviously, this is a small segment of students, 10 at the most,” Whitsett said. “What they really need is to have a transition period into the community. In the past, they’ve always had a program but a lot of the things they were doing were more activities, not really focused on a final goal.”

The school district’s maintenance staff spent 2½ months transforming an old lockerroom into a 1,300-square-foot apartment that contains an open concept living room, kitchen and dining room, laundry room, bathroom, bedroom, and second bedroom that serves as a classroom.

“During construction, the students were housed in a nearby classroom. They kept an eye on the progress, looking through the window each morning and asking my staff how it was going. They were so excited watching it come together,” said John Williams, the district’s coordinator of facility services.

Instructor Val Lenz describes her new teaching facility as “beyond her wildest dreams.” Her teaching team includes instructional assistant Yvonne Blackburn.

“Every day, I see improvement. They are learning about everything: how to vacuum, fill a dishwasher, wash windows and make beds, put away groceries and plan meals — all basic skills for functional living,” Lenz said.

The apartment’s proximity to the district’s Community Aquatic Center has also led to swimming classes — something new for two of the students, who had never learned how to swim. The young adults also have access to the gym and tennis courts, along with YMCA memberships.

One of the most significant parts of the project is the collaboration with Fond du Lac County Rehabilitative Services, Diverse Options in Ripon, an integrated employment specialist, and other outside agencies that place students in jobs, Lenz said. Already, two students are employed part-time in the community.

“That’s the goal, for every student to spend part of the day in employment,” she said.

The program provides as many opportunities as possible so that once students graduate, they can make their own decisions related to employment, social, health and daily living skills.

Aricka Moody said her daughter will be working at St. Peter’s Place two hours a day and learning how to take a cab to and from work.

“Tamika now gets up in the morning and tries to make her bed, something she never did before. She finally, just started dressing herself. Living in a home setting, she has gained so much self-worth knowing she can do more. It’s been phenomenal,” she said.

During a recent tour, School Board members and administrators were treated to a meal students helped prepare.

“It was a great opportunity for us to interact, and for me, a very rewarding experience,” Williams said.