For Students With Disabilities, The Last Years Of School Are Crunch Time

Nov 8, 2017

Monica Nguyen takes coffee orders and chats with customers at Toasty’s. It’s a coffee shop in the concessions stand next to the gym at Abramson Sci Academy in New Orleans. Nguyen’s job at Toasty’s isn’t just part-time work she has to make extra money. This is actually part of her education.

Nguyen is a 20-year-old student at Opportunities Academy, a program run by the charter-school network Collegiate Academies. The program serves students up to age 22 who have moderate or significant developmental disabilities, with a focus on getting them ready for life after they leave the K-12 system.

Nguyen and her classmates also take classes on life skills, like how to plan a bus route, shop for groceries, how to cook, or who to ask for help when you’re lost.

"All of those small skills, we must teach," says James Lukens, program director at Opportunities Academy. He says making progress on job and life skills is really important for students like Nguyen, who have just a couple years left before they’re no longer eligible to stay in the K-12 system. Federal law allows students with disabilities to stay in the K-12 education system until age 22.

"Take a student who finishes their high school experience at 22 - they’re on their own, there’s no one there to help them," he says. Lukens says often, young people with disabilities end up stuck at home alone while their family members are working.

"There’s where I see the urgency. It’s like if we don’t provide this, they will not have a job, they will not have something that’s meaningful and that they're interested in doing after graduation," Lukens says.

Or an even scarier possibility: if they don't have independent living skills and their families are unable to care for them, they could end up in an institution. Disability rights advocates say Louisiana institutionalizes far more people with developmental disabilities than it should because the state doesn’t provide enough funding for programs that help adults with disabilities live independently.

Behind Nguyen in the Toasty's kitchen, 19-year-old Carlana Dyson grinds the coffee beans to just the right consistency for pour-overs or French-press. This is Dyson’s first year in Opportunities Academy. She says she enjoys working at Toasty’s.

"My favorite part is helping people and doing hot drinks," Dyson says. She says she also recently learned how to work the cash register.

"Monica teach me to do it, and it’s really easy to do that," Dyson says.

Being a cashier wasn’t always easy for Dyson. Her job coach Maicha’n Bazile says she’s seen her make a lot of progress in just a few months.

"At the beginning of the school year Carlana was very shy," Bazile says. "She didn’t like to talk to the customers too much, or take orders. But now she’s been one to just push herself out there, and take the lead, work the register and communicate with the customers."

Opportunities Academy is a fairly young program, with just six graduates who face a wide range of disabilities, so it’s hard to say how much of an impact the program is making at this point. But Lukens says whether graduates end up with a part-time job or better independent living skills, he believes they have a better shot at staying out of a facility and in the community.

Entergy Corporation Supports WWNO's Education reporting.