Troy Buchanan’s Special Education Site Coordinator Lora Wattelet has been teaching special education at the high school for 18 years, and has been in the field for 21 years overall.
In that time, she’s found collaborating with her department and helping students transition successfully from high school to adult life to be a rewarding experience.
“It’s satisfying to collaborate with like-minded individuals who have the same goals in their mind of helping the kids get to where they want to be,” Wattelet said.
At the high school level, there are several approaches to special education.
There are students participating in general education classes that receive accommodations and modifications within those courses. Another level involves “co-teaching,” where a special education teacher works as a specialist in a classroom with a general education teacher. A more intensive level features what Wattelet called “applied classes.” “It’s like our co-taught classes, same curriculum as the general education classes, but then at a slower pace so that our students can get what we like to call the meat and potatoes: what they need, not so much the whole buffet [like] they might get in a completely general education classroom,” Wattelet said.
There’s also Life Skills courses taught as well.
Placement for every student in the special education program is based upon goals set by an Individualized Education Program (IEP); there are 156 students with IEPs at Troy Buchanan, with most of them falling in the co-teaching and applied education levels.
“Our main goal at the high school level when it comes to special education is, what agencies can we hook our students up with so when they leave us, they can have a successful transition from high school to adulthood?” Wattelet said.
Those transition services usually begin around age 16, or earlier if educators feels it’s necessary, and conversations with students about what they’d like to do after high school begin as early as ninth grade.
“I’m always having conversations with all of our students here, as the site coordinator at their IEP meetings, I’m always asking them, ‘hey, what do you want to do after high school?’” Wattelet said. “And of course their case managers, they are also having these conversations with the kids, and when they [the students] come over to us in 10th grade, we have an excellent opportunity for our students to work with the pre-employment transition specialist who’s assigned to us from University of Missouri.”
That specialist will come to the sophomore and junior classes, meeting with small groups of students and working with them on the soft skills necessary for job-seeking.
“Resumes, your strengths and weaknesses, IDEA [Individuals with Disabilities Education Act], the Americans with Disabilities Act – that sort of thing to kind of keep the kids thinking about, ‘okay, these are some things that we need to be focusing on after high school,’” Wattelet said.
When the IEP students reach senior year, students and parents have the opportunity to apply for services through Vocational Rehabilitation, a program sponsored through the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. This program gives aid to students who might struggle to find or keep a job due to their disability, working with those students and contacting outside agencies like Lincoln County’s Community Opportunities.
“They will work with our students, and they will take them out to some job assessments, take them to the workplace, give them some activities to complete while they’re out, and then they can see where the students’ strengths and weaknesses fall,” Wattelet said. “And then they can work with [the students] on improving themselves in those areas, and then finding that job, and doing job coaching, and staying within that job.
“What they are looking for is meaningful employment.”
Wattelet said one of the big successes of the special education field comes whenever she runs into a former student out in public, and they tell her about their accomplishments and what they’ve been up to.
“And they are so happy to tell me what they have been doing after they graduated, and if they’re working that always makes me super happy,” Wattelet said. “That’s always a success.”
Resources and funding are always a challenge to overcome, Wattelet said, and she said the county as a whole could strive to provide more resources for people with disabilities. She pointed to St. Charles County’s Parks and Recreation’s resources for people with disabilities as an example to follow, and added that overcoming transportation hurdles is another challenge to be faced, especially when getting students to out-of-county resources.
“It would be awesome if more resources from St. Charles County were open to coming out here to Lincoln County,” Wattelet said. One resource very close to home for Troy’s IEP kids are the other students at the high school. Kids from the Community Youth Volunteers (CYV) class come to the Life Skills classrooms to help, befriend and bond with the students there.
“For a block of the day, they are in the Life Skills classroom, and they are working one-on-one with the kids, working in groups, playing games, helping tutor, doing some reading or math or anything like that,” Wattelet said.
Several students from CYV who worked in the Life Skills class have gone on to pursue a special education career, because of the impact they had on the IEP students, and the impact that experience had on them.
“It’s not just a one-way street where the CYV kids are giving their all to the Life Skills students, no the Life Skills students are giving to them as well, they’re learning from one another,” Wattelet said.