HARTSVILLE, S.C. – “Every child matters every day,” said Lynette Jordan, director of exceptional education for the Darlington County School District.

Preparing exceptional education students for life beyond the classroom, beyond high school, is one of the primary goals of exceptional education educators in Darlington County.

Jordan said exceptional education students enter the classroom as early as 3 years old, and can remain in the school system until they are 21 years old.

She said it is their goal to prepare these students for life beyond their 21st birthday.

In the past, opportunities after high school for students with disabilities were very limited. Many went from being active in school to inactive at home with little or no interaction with others in the community.

Jordan said things have changed.

Most people might be surprised at how active these students are in their school and community.

“The trends have changed for students with disabilities,” said Jennifer Waldrop, a teacher of students with moderate intellectual disabilities at Hartsville High School, “Rather than stay at home with no long-range plans, they are becoming active members of the community.”

There is also a shift in how the school community and the community as a whole view individuals with disabilities, Waldrop added. The students are being more inclusive.

Jordan said the transitioning to adulthood starts at about age 13. Waldrop works with high school students ages 14 to 21.

“Some of my students stay six or seven years with us,” Waldrop said. She said her students do not receive diplomas.

Waldrop’s students work in a self-contained classroom setting and have moderate intellectual disabilities, ranging from physical to visual disabilities to autism.

“I really enjoy being at the high school,” Waldrop said. “I have taught pre-school and up.”

She said she enjoys preparing her students for life beyond school.

They participate in a wide range of activities at school, she said.

“We run the prom closet and have for five years,” Waldrop said.

She said they also participate in prop preparations for plays, prom and other activities.

For several years her students worked in the student store.

At Darlington High School their counterparts run a coffee service, Jordan said. Teachers put in an order for coffee, and the students fill the orders and deliver them, she said.

The students have volunteered in the community at places like Habitat for Humanity and the Hartsville Soup Kitchen. In Darlington, the students have helped out at BI-LO and other businesses.

“Our desire is to be able to volunteer at other agencies and businesses and give our students real-life skills and experiences, Waldrop said.

“It is always about transitioning and getting them prepared for the future,” Jordan said. “We are working for them to be productive, active members of the community.”

Waldrop teaches the students functional academics that focuses on skill development for life outside of the classroom. Her students are taught soft skills. She teaches the students personal character traits and interpersonal skills such as communication, teamwork, respect, problem solving, using technology, time management, and motivation and listening skills. They also are taught about work ethics, critical thinking, responsibility, flexibility, interpersonal skills and patience, skills that are necessary for entry-level jobs and for volunteering.

She said all employers are looking for their employees to be well-rounded.

Jordan said these students are not in the core diploma classrooms, but they attend school the same hours as other students. They are an integral part of the school community.

Several years ago, one of Waldrop’s students was chosen homecoming queen. She is now a student in the life program at Coastal Carolina University.

Waldrop said the student used the soft skills she was taught during the interview process for college. She also received a scholarship.

“She is definitely a success story,” Waldrop said.

Success is defined in an individual way, Waldrop added.

Success for everyone is based on individual needs.

Project Search, in its first year for the Darlington County School District, is one way individuals in exceptional education classes are measuring success. The nine-month nationwide “school-to-work” transition program is designed to prepare students for competitive employment. Project Search interns receive daily instruction in employability skills and gain hands-on work experiences by rotating among three 10-week unique internships, currently at Carolina Pines Hospital, Jordan said.

Five Hartsville High School students are participating in the program this year.

In addition to partnering with Carolina Pines, they also work with Project Search of Cincinnati, The Arc of Midlands, Darlington Vocational Rehabilitation, and the Department of Disabilities and Special Needs on this project. A teacher and an assistant are provided by the district work with these five students. Vocational Rehab provides a skills trainer who works with the students to reinforce needed skills during the internship.

A grant was awarded by the Arc of the Midlands to DCSD to help with licensing costs of the program. Sara Tew, secondary coordinator of exceptional education, applied for and received the grant after hearing about the program at a conference.

Waldrop said students in her class can transition out their final year into Project Search. There is an application process.

This is the first year and students had to apply, Jordan said. Although the program is for students from the entire district, only students at Hartsville High School applied this year.

The students are given three internship opportunities during their final year in school. They have regular work hours and responsibilities and report to the business each day, not to school.

The first half hour they meet with their teachers to go over the plans for the day, and then they begin work on the job. The last 30 minutes of their day is spent back with their teacher discussing what they did during the day and any problems that might have occurred.

By the end of the internships, the students have developed a resume and job skills. They also have some idea of what type of job they might be interested in, Jordan said. And they have gained independence, confidence and self-esteem.

Von Cranford, assistant principal at Hartsville High School, said Carolina Pines has been wonderful as mentors. She said they are very grateful to Carolina Pines for being the first business to work with the project.

Jordan said the goal of the program is for all students in Project Search to gain employment by the end of the program somewhere in the community.

“My expectations for my students are high,” Waldrop said. “I think they can do anything everyone else can do but just need some accommodations and specialized instructions. That is what they are getting with Project Search and in my classroom.”

Every school in the district has special needs children, from mild to severe disabilities, but the majority of them need minimal support, Jordan said.

Waldrop said the most rewarding part of her job is seeing the students become more independent, confident and active participants in their community. And this project helps them accomplish both independence and confidence.

Waldrop said when her students leave school other agencies are not required to offer them services. They have to seek services for themselves.

“We have strengthened our relationships with agencies like Vocational Rehab in the last three years,” Jordan said. “Before it was left up to the parents.”

Transitional fairs are held about once every two years with information about services for those with disabilities so parents can find out what is available for their child after high school.

Every school in the district has children with special needs, Jordan said. She said some are in mainstream classrooms while others are in self-contained classes like Waldrop’s.

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