Tuesday, January 11, 2011

More students with disabilities participating in community service, college programs

From The Mercury News in Calif.:

Despite their learning disabilities, Susan Switzer's students are often out and about in the community, visiting the mall, museum, theater and park.

They work a few hours a week at the library, bowling alley and other places.

They also run their own small business from their classroom in the Jefferson Union High School District building in Daly City, making popcorn and greeting cards and selling them to staff and other students.

"I think our program helps them be more engaged (in the community)," said Switzer, a special-education teacher in the district. "They learn appropriate manners, social skills and how to ask for help."

The achievements of those in Switzer's program reflect a new study's findings that show students with disabilities such as speech impairment, mental retardation or autism are more involved in their communities and are attending college in greater numbers than before.

More special-needs students aged 18-21 are participating in volunteer or community service, with the rate having almost doubled from 13 percent in 1990 to 25 percent in 2005, according to a study from SRI International, an independent research and technology-development organization based in Menlo Park.

In the area of financial independence and employment, more students were likely to have savings accounts in 2005 (56 percent) than in 1990 (44 percent), according to the study. However, the rate of employed students with disabilities dipped from 62 percent to 56 percent in that time span.

The study also indicated that within four years of leaving high school, 46 percent of students surveyed in 2005 enrolled in college or some other postsecondary school compared to 26 percent 15 years earlier.

Lynn Newman, a senior education researcher at SRI and project director for the study, attributed the gains to improved assistance in high school for special-needs youths over the past two decades.

"In general, high schools are providing more support and enhanced educational programs for students with disabilities," Newman said in a news release. "And students are increasingly taking rigorous academic courses in high school, which better prepare them for postsecondary education."

Societal trends that influence opportunities for students with disabilities have also helped, she said. "Schools and parents are encouraging students to pursue a broad range of options from higher education to vocational schools to diverse career choices," she said.

The increased use of differentiated teaching, in which instruction is tailored to the learning needs and style of each individual student, has benefited those with disabilities, noted Peter Burchyns, spokesman for the San Mateo County Office of Education.

"You find that they are far more capable of learning than you thought in a one-size-fits-all system," Burchyns said.

He added that his agency offers a program that helps students with disabilities make the transition from school to some degree of independent adult living. The program includes training in basic life skills and career exploration, he said.

Switzer started her program for "limited intelligence functioning" students in the late 1990s. It involves regularly taking a group of students on field trips to various sites and events.

Recently, a group of about 10 students accompanied by Switzer and other teachers checked out a music store and ate lunch at the food court at Tanforan mall in San Bruno.

"It's an important component for them to learn how to make decisions, spend money and order food on their own," Switzer said. "Coming here is a big part of the social-skill aspect. We fade the amount of help we give them so they become more independent."

The students also pick up financial and other skills from their popcorn and card-making enterprise, she said. And individually, they hold down jobs with different employers.

David Tsang, 20, of Pacifica works at the library. "I like working at the library," Tsang said. "I like cleaning the shelves and putting books in ABC order."

Abigail Suliguin, 18, of Daly City, said she's learning a lot in Switzer's class.

"I like doing the work," Suliguin said. "I like the math. We learn about money like subtracting and adding."