Program offers a bridge to the future

Transition Center helps students learn skills for college, work or whatever lies ahead

Xitlali Garcia was hunched over a light table Monday morning, painstakingly peeling off pieces of a transfer sheet that later would be pressed onto a St. Patrick's Day T-shirt.

Garcia doesn't mind the attention to detail required. She enjoys working for Threads, a micro business that is part of the new District 86 Transition Center.

She is one of about 80 to 90 Hinsdale Central and Hinsdale South graduates who attend the new center, which is tucked into an office building on Frontage Road in Burr Ridge. The center offers a variety of supports for students who received special education services prior to graduation.

Garcia also demonstrates how to use the press to affix a design to a T-shirt. Different transfers require different temperatures, pressures and time in order to be securely attached.

"There's a lot of behind-the-scenes work that goes on," instructor Nancy Brown said. "It's not just pulling the lever down."

Threads started of as an apparel pressing company but now offers custom mugs and buttons. Students have produced 1,855 pieces this year, with orders ranging from individual items to 380 pieces. They are involved with everything from ordering materials to invoicing.

"That's been a business where our young adults are learning a lot of skills, but they can also take a lot of ownership of the business side of things," said Katie DiCianni, assistant director of the center.

Threads is just one of many opportunities Transition Center students have to prepare for life as an adult. In another classroom, teacher Ashley Principe coaches students on building a strong resume. Interviewing skills also are taught with the help of video.

"We work a lot on interviewing and having students be able to speak to their strengths," DiCianni notes.

The center also includes a full kitchen, where students might learn how to cook, and a laundry, which includes a changing area for students heading off to a paid or volunteer job.

"Help wanted" fliers from businesses like Kramer Foods, Lifetime, Target and others hang on a large bulletin board in the hallway. Students can scan the QR code to pull up a digital application on their phones.

"We have more young adults working than we ever have in the past," DiCianni said.

"That's one of the best things - when our students get a job," said Tina Kinsey, transition director for the district.

Some 50 partner businesses in the district offer paid and/or volunteer employment to students. Hinsdale partners include Kelsey Resale, the Hinsdale Chamber of Commerce, the Oak School early childhood program, Union Church Preschool and The Community House. Students typically work two hours a day two or four days a week.

"Through the past couple of years, we've really grown our community partners," Kinsey said.

Even unpaid work can lead to a competitive job, DiCianni noted.

"This gives us an opportunity for our young adults to work in front of employees in their real business," she said. "We've seen a real increase this year of them getting hired by the businesses that they are volunteering at."

A white board shows when shuttle buses will depart from the center to take students to job sites, the grocery store or the College of DuPage, where some students are enrolled full time, others part time. Teaching students how to use public transportation or get a cab is important for those who do not drive, DiCianni said.

The transition program is designed to support students in four main areas, Kinsey said: employment, training, education and independent living skills.

"Our job is to give them the opportunity to continue to learn skills and strategies out in the real world so when they leave and exit programming, they can be as successful as possible," Kinsey said.

Support for some comes in the form of financial assistance. Tuition and book fees for COD students are covered by Secondary Transitional Experience Program grants from the Illinois Department of Human Services Division of Rehabilitation Services.

Transition Center students in the program range from those who require personal care and one-on-one support throughout the day to those who can be independent on a college campus and everything in between, Kinsey said.

About 15 years ago, the state mandated that high school districts offer transition programs for graduates until the day before their 22nd birthday. A change in the law allows them to stay through the school year in which they turn 22.

"Prior to really developing our Bridge and our COD program or our split program, many students would just leave after high school," Kinsey said. "They would graduate with their peers and go off to COD on their own and try to navigate it on their own and they were not very successful."

The program has grown in popularity from 26 students in 2013-14 to 115 students. The school board decided last spring to spend $1.96 million to lease and renovate 11,000 square feet to ease overcrowding at the existing Transition Center at 7302 Clarendon Hills Road, near Hinsdale South in Darien. The focus there is on helping students integrate into the community, whether they will work a competitive or volunteer job part-time or attend a day program.

"Our goal is eventually to have our program under one roof," Kinsey said. "If we had unlimited resources, we would love to be under one roof for the entire program."

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Pamela Lannom is editor of The Hinsdalean