Special ed grads get help beyond high school

Genevieve Nemeth, Staff Writer

Post-Secondary Academy teacher Danielle Gutierrez talks to her students who are on a field trip to San Jose City College. Photo credit: Lily Middleton/Bear Witness

For the past three years, the district’s Camden Post-Secondary Academy has been helping its special education high school graduates transition from high school to their first years of adulthood.

The four-building academy, located near the district office off Camden Ave., is built around the philosophy that the community is the classroom, according to Ophelia Gomez, the site administrator.

The students, from ages 18 to 22, have frequent opportunities to venture out of the classroom to learn real life skills. Inside the classroom, some of which are built to resemble studio apartments, students are taught how to cook, make their beds, and how to do their laundry. Gomez said that they are taught that work equals money and no work equals no money. On a recent Friday, the group traveled to San Jose City College, one of several local destinations for their field trips.

Teamwork is the word that Danielle Gutierrez, a teacher at the academy, would describe her class. This teamwork is apparent where students are asked to teach other students the skills they have learned. The students benefit from learning from each other because it helps with their communication skills.

“They all have their own strengths and weaknesses, but the strength of others help those who maybe are still learning that strength.” Gutierrez said.

Principal Cheryl Lawton said that the district used to send the students out of the county, costing each student thousands of dollars. Since its opening in 2017, the Camden Post-Secondary Academy has not only saved the district money, but it keeps the students working and learning in their neighborhoods.

The special education students receive free education until they are 22 years old, so the academy focuses on a four-year plan that helps to find a job that is right for each student.

At the academy, there are four classrooms, where students are placed based on their level of independence, from whether they can cook and clean to whether they can use washer and dryer properly.

Gutierrez said that the students at the academy are more independent than you think.

“What most people realize is that students that you would think can’t do a lot, can.” Gutierrez said.

“These students are more like your typical everyday students than they are different. They just have to do things differently and they need more support.”

Teachers at the academy engage in transition planning, a process to support students and help guide them to figure out their goals and needs after leaving the school system.

“The mission is to give our students a meaningful life and that means to highlight all the things they’re good at, what their passion is, and give them the tools to use,” Gutierrez said.

The aim is to not to address their limitations, but on what their skillset is, and “just run with that,” Gutierrez said.

She said it’s her job to find the successes and to develop them until they are better prepared for the real world at 22 years old.

“My students are very capable of doing things,” Gutierrez said. “All their lives they’ve been under estimated.