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Special education students at Huntley High School find success through LIGHT program

HUNTLEY – Without Huntley School District 158’s Life Instruction Guiding Huntley Transition, or LIGHT, program, 23-year-old Aimee Jenchel said it would have been hard to get a job.

Jenchel, of Lake in the Hills, was a student in the LIGHT program until she aged out at 22 years old, and today she works at the Huntley Park District part time.

The LIGHT program supports the district’s 18- to 21-year-old special education students who have delayed receiving their diploma to seek additional education, said Liz Kienzle, District 158’s transition facilitator who helped spearhead the program.

In Illinois, special education students can get special education services until they are 22, Kienzle said.

“It helped me find work and gave me support when I first started my job,” Jenchel, who has been working with the park district for about three years, said of LIGHT. “It also helped me become more independent and taught me more self-confidence.”

When school districts started to separate from the Special Education District of McHenry County, Kienzle said she saw a gap that needed to be filled for special education students who wanted to continue their education.

The LIGHT program launched during the 2013 school year, and since then, the number of students in the program has grown from about 15 to 50, Kienzle said.

Although some transition programs serve students with more significant disabilities, LIGHT is unique in that it serves a wide range of students, from those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder to mental health impairments to physical disabilities, Kienzle said. 

The program is broken into four tiers based on students needs. Tier one focuses on daily living skills, while tier four, the highest-functioning level, focuses on students taking classes through McHenry County College and finding a job.

“They’re able to receive support to help make sure they’re continuing to grow” through the LIGHT program, Kienzle said. 

There are 11 teachers and staff members who are part of LIGHT, Kienzle said.

Diana Beckman, transition specialist and job developer with the program, has been with the LIGHT program for about two years.

There are about 56 local employers who the program works with to give students jobs, Beckman said, and about 75 percent of students in the program leave with a job.

The community partners will be recognized at a breakfast Wednesday.

“It gives the students a sense of purpose and value when they have a job and a connection to the community,” Beckman said. “... And it speaks volumes when an employer will take a chance, and give an opportunity for a job and to help [students] have paid employment.”

Cindy Howver, Sweet Repeats Thrift Shoppe’s store manager, employs LIGHT students, and she started a scholarship program for LIGHT students taking classes at MCC who generally do not receive any financial aid.

“[Special education students] need to be treated like everybody else in the world does, and they deserve to have an education,” Howver said.

One of her employees who is in the LIGHT program is 20-year-old Isaiah George of Huntley.

George has been working at the thrift shop for about three years and also takes classes at MCC through the LIGHT program.

“I must admit, I would be struggling a lot more than I am now [without the LIGHT program],” George said. “They’ve helped me a lot since I started.”

Daniel Mayer, 20, said the LIGHT program helped him receive a better education and job. Because of it, he’s now able to live independently in Cary, he said.

Erick Rodriguez also has found success through the program. The 21-year-old has been working at Fresh Thyme Farmers Market in Crystal Lake for about a year. 

What’s wonderful about Rodriguez is his growth through his time at the store, Fresh Thyme store director Carol Doherty said.

Doherty said Rodriguez came in shy but has since become more vocal and is a good employee.

“Honestly, I don’t know what I would do without the LIGHT program,” Rodriguez said. 

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