Transitions Course Prepares Students for Life After High School

Transitions program_benton hall academyBenton Hall Academy is not a fancy school, but it’s filled with hidden gems. One of which is the Transitions program, a mandatory course for seniors developed by lead high school teacher and special education curriculum expert, Larry O’Brien.

“Transitions is all about preparing our students for life after high school,” says O’Brien. “Whether or not a student is college bound, we want every young person to embark on the next chapter of their lives with the confidence and practical information they need to be successful.”

Inspired by the 2009 Mayor’s Summit on Secondary Transition Services, where O’Brien and other area educators and business leaders brainstormed ways to prepare students with disabilities for life after high school, the Transitions program has been a guiding light for Benton Hall’s students since the 2009/2010 school year.

The course begins by asking students to write the story of their lives–from childhood all the way up to old age. “The exercise helps them see the bigger picture of their lives,” O’Brien explains. “It helps them to understand that every decision–every step–has an effect on the future, and it empowers them to make thoughtful, deliberate choices about their lives.”

Students take career and interest surveys, and each writes a five-year plan, starting with where they plan to be the day after graduation. “Will you have a job? Will you be watching reruns on your parents’ couch? What is that day going to look like?”, O’Brien prompts the kids. “You’ve never had a day like this before–a day this ripe with possibility.”

As the year progresses, students explore their personalities, strengths and weaknesses; they examine career choices, and perform real time job searches–considering salary data from state to state.

Delving into that research has been known to change some students’ minds regarding their career aspirations. After performing a nationwide job search, one young man who had wanted to be a forest ranger discovered that the only job available was in a remote park in Ohio; he quickly decided to re-evaluate his career plans.

The Transitions course also teaches students about health, nutrition, and fitness–and how to take care of their bodies. One high school student in Transitions has lost 40 pounds, inspired in part by what she learned in class—and supported by her teachers.

“We spend the first ten minutes of every class just moving,” says O’Brien. “Walking around the school, tossing a ball in the gym, laughing and playing hot potato. Students come back to class happy and engaged and ready to work.”

“We teach the kids how exercise, even mild exercise, just moving around a little bit, can alter your mood,” says O’Brien. “For students who struggle with anxiety and depression, this information is so valuable. Health has to be everyone’s first priority. If you don’t have your health–everything in life is difficult.”

In addition to career planning, the Transitions course delivers practical real world skills, like how to manage personal finances, buy a car, build a budget, shop for groceries, and responsibly use credit (or avoid debt altogether). Students learn about compound interest, how to invest, how to shop for health insurance, and how to save for retirement.

And then there’s the program’s centerpiece: Self advocacy.

“It’s a critical takeaway,” says O’Brien. “Self advocacy skills are an absolute must for these kids–and they are skills that have to be taught.”

Once students are out of high school, the independence can be overwhelming. No one is standing over their shoulder telling them to go to class or do their homework or get to work on time. And no one is going to ask them if they have trouble taking notes or remembering things. In any situation where learning is involved, they have to know what they need to be successful and be assertive in asking for it.

They also need to know their civil rights, so the course familiarizes them with the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA,) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. This, says O’Brien, empowers them to be confident, productive people—in any undertaking.

Two graduates returned recently to Benton Hall Academy and said they were creating a plan to start a business. “We use everything you taught us,” they said. “We’re going to do this the right way, without going into debt.”

This feedback is a source of pride for O’Brien, who notes that the impact of the Transitions program is meant to be life long. “We create a community in this class,” he says. “It’s a circle of trust and support–and it’s something additional that students can draw on long after they’ve moved on from high school.”

Larry O’Brien has a Masters in Special Education from Vanderbilt University. He has been teaching at Benton Hall Academy since 1998.