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Saturday, June 17, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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What's ahead for special-ed graduates?

Seattle Times Eastside bureau

Becky Sherertz takes a deep breath and looks out at the expectant crowd that has come to see her and her classmates graduate from the Lake Washington School District.

"OK, I can do this," the 21-year-old whispers into the microphone before she begins her speech thanking her teachers and parents. "You have helped me become an independent young woman," she tells them.

That, above all her other accomplishments, is the most important for the special-education student, who is developmentally disabled.

Sherertz is among nine such students who graduated Thursday night from Lake Washington's Transition Academy in Redmond.

The students' disabilities range from Down syndrome to autism, and their education is meant to prepare them for a life of more independence.

Over the two years Sherertz has been at the Eastside academy, she has learned to ride a Metro bus, pay for a meal in a restaurant and complete simple office tasks like alphabetical sorting.

She is among a wave of developmentally disabled students who are graduating from a sheltered world where they were entitled to an education tailored to their needs. Now, they'll be applying for state-run programs that often lack funding.

Statewide, more than 841 special-education students 20 or 21 years old are "aging out" of school districts and moving into the work force.

"Like any other child who is graduating from high school or college, the next step for them is to get a job, and as a parent, you hope they have the skills they need to be successful," said Sherertz's mother, Nancy Sherertz. "Our dreams and fears and hopes for children with special needs are the same as all parents have for all of their children."

Richard Haines, the teacher who oversees Lake Washington's Transition Academy, knows the road ahead will be tough for many of the graduates.

Against the backdrop of balloons proclaiming "2006!," he said he believes his students have the skills they need to be productive once they leave, but he still worries.

Of the nine students graduating from the academy, eight are going on to part-time jobs; some will work fewer than 12 hours a week.

"It's a stark contrast after they graduate," Haines said. "They are going from public education that is mandated for them ... they were entitled to services and now they are eligible for services, but it's not a guarantee."

Graduation goals

Under federal law, special-education students are entitled to free and appropriate education from age 3 until they graduate from high school, or the year they turn 21.

For many special-education students with developmental disabilities, graduation standards are based on goals related to everyday tasks such as grooming, using public transportation, going grocery shopping and paying for a meal at a restaurant.

For Allen Adair, that meant many hours of working on shaving with an electric razor and learning to prepare food in a microwave.

On Thursday, the tall, lanky 20-year-old shuffled to the podium, his head bent down as he focused on reading his graduation speech to family and friends.

"It has been a long road to get to graduation," said Adair, who will soon find himself working nearly full time at Lowe's, making him one of the top employed graduates of his small class.

"I look forward to trying many new things and different jobs," he told the audience. "I will probably take Metro to get there."

His new job starts in a week or two.

"I'll get to help old ladies with their potting soil," he said.

Job support

A key to keeping developmentally disabled people employed is getting them into a supported employment program, where a job coach periodically visits them and their employers to make sure any issues or concerns are addressed.

If a job falls through, the program will help line up new employment, Haines said.

But state-funded employment programs may soon be maxing out on dollars.

There have been more developmentally disabled students graduating since 2005 than in previous years, which means not all students will be able to get into the employment programs, said Linda Rolfe, director of the Division of Developmental Disabilities under the state Department of Social and Health Services.

About 1,400 students graduated in 2005 and 2006, and of those, the state will likely not be able to fund programs for about 350 new graduates, Rolfe said.

"The state Legislature did approve more funds for us this year, but we also had more students graduate than we expected," Rolfe said. "We'll support as many as we can ... we're working on stretching the money as best we can to cover more people."

Funding problems and budget cuts are also on Vickie Louden's mind.

Her son, Matt, is graduating, and while he has a job at a local athletic club, it's fewer than 10 hours a week, she said.

"It seems that in a tightened economic climate, people aren't willing to look creatively," she said. "They've already streamlined their businesses, and they can't imagine where people like Matt would fit in."

That's a common problem among developmentally disabled graduates entering the work force, said Cinda Johnson, principal investigator for the Center for Change in Transition Services. The center is a Seattle University program that conducts an annual, state-funded survey on the progress of special-education students after they leave their school districts.

The students coming from school districts like Lake Washington, which have programs focused on getting youth into internships and paying jobs before they leave school, tend to fare better later on.

"The strength in Lake Washington's program is making those connections before they leave school," Johnson said. "If a parent is trying to help their child make those connections, while they themselves are working and taking care of other children, that might not happen."

The students in Transition Academy's graduating class say they are ready for the world beyond school.

They are excited about the future.

On Thursday, the students took turns addressing the audience packed into the Resource Center at Lake Washington's main offices, some students wiping tears away, others taking a bow when they were done.

"Thank you for helping me prepare for the real world," Nancy Keovongsa said. "I hope I find a real job."

Rachel Tuinstra: 206-515-5637 or rtuinstra@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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