WESTFIELD – On a recent visit to the Westfield community-based transition services’ new home at Central Baptist Church, one student talked about the advantages of the new location, and another about his frustrations with the COVID shutdown.
Dakota Noel, a returning student, liked the fact that the new location is downtown. “I can walk to it,” he said, compared to the former location on East Mountain Road.
Transition Specialist Sherry Elander said when Western Mass Hospital told them they needed the space for public health, there was consideration by the district of bringing the transition services back to the high school. Elander said Superintendent Stefan Czaporowski supported finding them a separate location.
Noel for one is thankful. “I’m happy that he (the superintendent) agreed with us. Some of us want to move on from high school. We already graduated. We didn’t want to stay in the high school,” he said.
Transition services is a part of the Westfield Public Schools, and is for students ages 18-21 who are still entitled to school services. Transition gives students the support and opportunity to achieve their goals by offering continuing education opportunities, assistance with employment and workplace readiness, and community-based opportunities and support.
“There are very clear guidelines on what I am supposed to do. Transition law focuses on students’ strengths, interests and abilities. That’s my job,” Elander said.
There are 26 students in the program; 18 in person, and eight online. Some students are with them three days a week, and two days at home online. Most students are there five days a week, Elander said. They come by PVTA and paratransit buses. One student drives, and others walk.
The new space in Central Baptist includes a kitchen, two handicap-accessible bathrooms, a washer and dryer, storage area, an office/conference room, and a big social room that is used for classes, a living room and dining area.
Elander said there is still more work to be done as they settle in, including making new curtains for the big room. The church has a maintenance staff person, and the school department comes in every day to ionize the classroom. The room has special cups to separate pencils and pens that have been used from clean pencils and pens, and students have their own baskets and binders. Everyone wears masks, except when eating, and maintains social distance.
The transition service connects with other agencies, such as the Mass Development Disability Council, which is working with the students on skills to become an employee. The Stavos Center offers pre-employment workplace readiness, and PVTA is giving a class on travel training. During the visit, some students were working in the hall space, taking classes at Westfield State University. There are also students enrolled at HCC, and others participating in an autism group through Independence College.
Students use Chromebooks everyday to send emails. Staff member Luis Burgos does a music enrichment class, and some students bring in their instruments to play. They have made muffins and pizza in the kitchen, as well as the favorite “worms and dirt,” gummy worms in chocolate pudding with oreo cookie crumbs on top.
Students lead jeopardy games which involve in-person and online classmates. On Thursday, Maddie Gainer and Cam Ortona were the student leaders. They also play Kahoot! and Bingo, do movement and take mask and computer breaks.
Currently, students are working on a pen pal project, organized by the Ludlow district, where they are connecting with other transition services around the country. The first letter is going to teachers about the students’ interests. Noel wrote about his goals after graduation. Other letters will talk about Westfield and Massachusetts.
Elander said they hope that other schools will partner with them. “It’s great to match people up by their interests,” she said.
Another longstanding project is Newspapers in Education with the Springfield Republican They get 15 newspapers delivered daily for free, and have an online subscription. Elander said they use the newspaper for current events, discussion and vocabulary enrichment.
Elandar said schools are academic based and offer traditional courses. “Here, the whole world is our curriculum,” she said.
Some of their work has been hampered by the COVID shutdown, with fewer opportunities for students to take on internships and go to jobs in the community.
Returning student Connor Jones expressed his frustration with some of the limitations “I wanted to work at the Holyoke Merry-go-Round, which is temporarily closed,” Jones, who had volunteered there previously, said. He is also frustrated with not being able to talk to some of his friends, with only Facebook as a substitute.
Currently, he and others are looking into an alternative social media platform called Making Authentic Friendship (MAF), started by a woman who has a brother with autism. The site helps individuals with special needs (age 13+) find friends, based on their location, diagnosis, age and interests. Elander said the site is very secure, and only uses first names. Jones is trying to get some of his friends to sign up.
Recently, the class took the bus to Stanley Park, where there is space to be socially distanced, and picked up lunch afterwards.
Elander said they are short on staff, especially para professionals. Staff members include Doris Love, Cecil Christian, Burgos, a new staff person who has been out for two weeks, and two more who are offsite working with remote students.
“The staff here has a lot more responsibility and expectations,” Elander said. She said they have been getting great support from Debra Ecker, the interim administrator of special education and support services, who Elander said has been doing “a great job.”
“I feel supported as a teacher,” she said, but her staff could use more. “We have never worked so hard,” she added.
“We are making a difference. This is the end of the entire (school) career. There is no law after this. People are familiar with early intervention. We’re the last connection to entitlement, before the move into eligibility,” Elander said.