By Annabelle Knef
O’FALLON – There’s a very special place, nestled quietly in O’Fallon.
The OTHS Special Education program and Transition House serves students with a range of abilities in the O’Fallon community.
Martha Blackburn, O’Fallon Township High School Director of Special Services, said the Transition House, a separate facility that provides education to 18 through 22 year olds, serves many purposes in O’Fallon.
Back in 2011, District 203 purchased a house across the street from the Smiley Campus that was once the pastor’s house for the Methodist church.
“Dr. [Darcy] Benway and I were very much on the same page and that was wanting to have a separate facility for our older transition kids,” Blackburn said. “The pastor was moving so we had the opportunity to purchase the house.”
Blackburn said the district then “gutted” the home, taking down walls and doors, in order to have an open space for students to congregate. The Transition House began operating in the fall of 2012.
Blackburn said funding for the Transition House came from an “ARRA” grant.
Stacy Becker, who has taught special education at the high school since 2000 and at the Transition House since 2012, said that by federal law Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) students are allowed to stay in high school until the day before they turn 22.
“Many of them were staying here on campus, but they had brothers and sisters who were graduating,” Becker said.
Becker said the Transition House not only increases students self esteem, it also increases their ability to gain skills they wouldn’t if they stayed within the four walls of the Smiley Campus.
Becker said students are still able to walk through the graduation ceremony after four years along with their peers.
“Many of our students were doing that but were coming right back to the high school,” she said.
Becker said that while her students may have received their certificate of completion after four years of high school, they would return to OTHS to be further educated on independent living and vocational skills in order to transition into adult life.
“We serve a wide range of students with different ability levels and different things they are good at and things they need to work on,” Becker said. “Some of our students require a lot of support whether physical or educational support.”
Becker said some students in the Transition House may have high school credits still left to finish. “Or, they have all of their credits for high school and they are just ready to work on more independent living skills like how to cook for themselves, ride the metro, budget or do laundry.”
While there is no “typical” day at the Transition House, Becker said every student receives vocational training, life skills training such as cooking or cleaning, and partake in some form of recreation at the YMCA.
Stephanie Copelin, a teacher at the Transition House, said it depends on a student’s individual plan for how long they stay in the program. However, a majority of the students stay until they age out at 22-years-old.
The Transition House also aids in finding employment for its students. Several students work at Sodexo, a food services company that serves O’Fallon District 90 schools. Other students work in retail businesses throughout the community.
“We try to get our students connected in different areas and jobs to see what they would be interested in and something they could maybe continue in,” Copelin said.
Blackburn said the district’s “ultimate success” through the Transition House is seeing students get placed in jobs. “We feel like we have done a good job preparing our students for that.”
“Unfortunately, the use of adults with disability in the community is low,” she said. “We would love to see that increase.”
Blackburn said a future goal for the program is to create a business for the community that employs students from the Special Education and Transition program.
The business, Blackburn said, would give students official job skills and also serve as an example “to show people that adults with disabilities can work in the real world and are a great support to any business.”
Another future goal for the program is secure a larger facility for transition students. While there are currently 19 students in the Transition House, Blackburn said the number is projected to steadily increase in the next few years.
Blackburn said it is already “tricky space- wise” at the Transition House with 19 students and additional staff.
Next year, Blackburn said transition students will have to rotate schedules. While some are at the facility, some may be at their job or at the YMCA.
As the 2019-2020 school year is Blackburn’s final year at the district before her retirement, it is her goal to have a place secured by the 2020-2021 school year.
Before students enter the Transition House, they are meeting their individualized education goals at the Milburn and Smiley Campuses, according to Tiffany Niedringhaus, Special education coordinator.
Specialized classes for different intellectual abilities are offered at both the Milburn and Smiley Campus. Life skills training are integrated into every student’s education.