Students STRIVE for independence in new program

CRYSTAL LAKE – Prairie Ridge High School’s four newest classrooms could open a lifetime worth of doors for some students.

Special-needs students who have graduated from Community High School District 155 now will have the opportunity to learn independent living and job skills in a new program called Students Training for Recreation, Independence, Vocation and Education.

The program, known as STRIVE, provides students hands-on training that allows them to be more self-sufficient as they transition from their high school years. Training includes vocational development, independent living skills, community integration, safety, self-advocacy and academics.

Sandy Whelan, special education assistant division leader for the district, said the four classrooms in Prairie Ridge allowed special education instructors to revamp the curriculum and start the new program.

“We’ve been able to double our vocational training, which is a huge component, because we all go to school with the idea it will help us get a job to support ourselves,” Whelan said. “That’s what we want to build on here.”

The district had a similar program that started about 10 years ago and was housed in an administrative building basement through last year. Whelan said the program could accept only about 23 students and was limited in what it could offer.

Now with the four classrooms, Whelan said, the program has nearly 60 students and the space to teach a variety of skills in small and large groups.

One room is dedicated to vocational training, where students can learn clerical skills, restaurant and kitchen skills and other occupational tasks. Another room features a full kitchen, where students can learn to prepare meals for independent living. The two other rooms are dedicated to academics and independent living skills in large and small group settings.

Whelan said the opportunities outside of the classroom are just as important as what is learned inside Prairie Ridge.

Many of the students spend time splitting days between Prairie Ridge and at their jobs with program partners such as Bethesda Thrift Shop, Joseph’s Marketplace and Culver’s.

“All of our community partners are so important and so great to work with,” Whelan said. “They treat all our students just like any other employee, and we always get great reports from job coaches who are with them the whole time.”

Students also spend time in social settings to promote community integration. Whelan said students learn to use bus and train routes or just relax in social situations, such as bowling or eating out.

The program already has made a noticeable difference for Rita Keener’s son. Keener, whose son previously attended a District 200 program, said her son comes home with a smile now and displays important skills.

Because there is only a short window for students to be in the program – from graduation until their 22nd birthday – Keener said efficiency was important.

“I am thrilled about the location and the new teachers from all the different high schools,” she said. “It’s everything for our kids. Some may never reach full independence, but it’s important stepping-stones.”

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