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Teaching work and life skills

Starting this year, a group of students in the Citrus County School District has the option of receiving guidance toward employment through the Transition Academy, which is based at Withlacoochee Technical Institute.

Special education high school students who are working toward special diplomas or have received special diplomas have, by Florida law, the option to stay in school until their 22nd birthday. A special diploma is for students who would struggle with or otherwise be unable to meet the requirements for a standard diploma. Those students are not required to take the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT).

But when a student graduates with a special diploma before age 22, he or she may not have the skills to immediately enter the work force. Such a student has two options for continuing his or her education: enrolling at the CREST School or at the new academy at Withlacoochee Technical.

The academy is staffed by teacher Marty Demangone and job coaches Kathy Patterson and Judy Carlton. Dave Benthusen, student facilitator for exceptional student education, oversees the job coaches. Jean Reed, director of exceptional student education, oversees the academy. Funding comes through Denise Willis, the school district's coordinator of vocational adult and community education.

A student who decides to enroll at the academy receives individualized instruction. "We offer social skills, job training and placement," Benthusen said. "We focus on exactly what that student needs."

In the classroom, Patterson and Demangone teach career skills, including preparing for interviews, filling out job applications and career exploration. These special education students may be in need of daily living skills, as well, so they can function in the community beyond the workplace.

Social or daily living skills may include managing personal finances and a household; caring for personal needs; buying, preparing and consuming food; buying clothing; and perhaps hygiene.

"We look at the whole student," Benthusen said. "We're worried about what it takes for the child to be successful in the community."

The students may need to learn how to acquire self-confidence and/or how to achieve socially responsible behavior. "We take field trips to reinforce what they're learning in the classroom," Benthusen said.

As a job coach in the field, Carlton mainly does job placement, but may accompany students to jobs to help them with specific skills. She works with the academy and the high schools.

Through the academy, students can try out jobs and find out what they like to do. Companies that have been open to allowing students to train with them are Publix, Citrus Health and Rehabilitation Center, Crystal River Health and Rehabilitation Center, the Citrus County Chronicle and the Citrus County School District.

Students who try vocational opportunities at Withlacoochee Technical can enroll if what they tried turns out to be a good fit. Some may decide they would like to try to earn a regular diploma through the GED (General Educational Development) program. The academy will help them do that.

Academy instructors see these students as adults who need help transitioning from high school to the workplace, and so far it seems to be successful.

"We watch them mature very, very quickly. You see them change in a way that they become a part of the community," Benthusen said.

"It's awesome," Carlton said.