On four Saturdays this spring, Sharon Thomas has made the hour-long drive from Hatboro to the University of Pennsylvania with a strong sense of urgency and hope.
Her son, Kyle, has autism and is 19. She worries that he only has one more year of high school and little more than a year before he turns 21 and the state considers him an adult. Kyle is enrolled in the VAST Life program offered through Penn’s Graduate School of Education. For Thomas, the free program, which meets one Saturday a month for six hours, January through May, has become a lifeline.
“I’m learning on the fly,” says Thomas, “Kyle is my only child and I’ve had to be very proactive seeking services. Now I’m facing the question, what next? What happens after he leaves school and a lot of the services and support are no longer there? Sometimes something as simple as ordering a slice of pizza sends him into a panic.
For him it is about practice, practice, practice; he needs to do things over and over again. I want to give Kyle every opportunity to be as independent as he can be.”
Transitioning is a big part of the goal of Penn GSE’s VAST Life, which stands for Vocational Academic Social Transition Life Skill Independent Functional Experiences. The program pairs high school students, who are aged 14-19 and have significant developmental and intellectual disabilities, with Penn graduate students who are working towards master’s of education degrees and special education certification in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
For Kyle and the 25 other VAST Life teens, the program’s cultural activities and lessons in life skills are aimed at helping them navigate the journey to more independence as they reach adulthood. When they complete the program, Thomas and the other families each will have a conference with a VAST Life teacher. They will receive a transitional assessment to help them better understand the potential, and the limitations, of their child’s abilities in the areas of social, vocational and life skills.
For Chellsee Lee, the Penn GSE student paired with Kyle, VAST Life offers her and her peers the opportunity to work one on one with an adolescent identified by the United States Department of Education as “low-incidence.” The term refers to students who have moderate to severe intellectual disabilities and other impairments requiring skilled intervention. Currently this accounts for about 2-3 percent of the U.S. population.
Lee is one of 150 students currently enrolled in the Penn GSE Teach for America program and one of 54 pursuing the special education track or strand. The Penn GSE TFA partnership mirrors Teach for America’s national program, which requires corps members to pursue certification or an advanced degree during their two-year teaching placement in high-needs schools. TFA works to recruit and support new teachers like Lee to expand educational opportunities for students.