ELMHURST – Coffee brews as young adults pack their sack lunches and take out money from the bank in preparation for the day. Mornings at the District 205 Transition Center run smoothly because everyone has a job to do.
“I know what the drill is,” said Maureen Bourgart, who’s in her third year at the center.
The Transition Center fulfills a federal mandate by providing an additional service to students with individualized education programs (IEP) after they graduate high school until they turn 22, but the 20 York High School graduates that arrive every weekday at 7:45 a.m. aren’t required to do so.
“They’ve all chosen to be here,” transition teacher Patrick Chambers said. “It’s a really positive environment because of that.”
The center’s two teachers, Chambers and Steve Westendorf, and vocational coordinator, Jill Mueller, work with groups of students on vocational and community skills as they each work on their own goals.
When the Transition Center opened in September 2007, the facility was at York and Vallette streets, but in 2009 the staff worked with an architect to design the present center, 324 N. York St.
“The idea was that we didn’t want the facility to dictate who could or couldn’t come,” said Mueller, explaining that the one-story space accommodates ambulatory students as well as those in wheelchairs.
The back parking lot also allows students to wait for taxi cabs that take them to vocational training, where they learn how to perform a particular job at a local business.
“They’re not creating fake jobs for the students,” Chambers said about students who do vocational training out in the community.
They often start with one-to two-hour shifts with assistance, and as they learn the job requirements, they work longer shifts, possibly own their own.
Others work together on the center’s microbusiness, or plan for a familystyle meal they will cook. Every week, small groups make a grocery list, take money out of their accounts to split the cost, shop for ingredients and cook a hot lunch.
“A lot of students, regardless of disability, are used to being in the passenger seat,” Chambers said. “We really want to give them the opportunity to jump in the driver’s seat and really dictate what they want to do.”
While the students no longer move from class to class at the command of a bell, each day they have a schedule that they follow.
It’s James Robinson’s first year at the Transition Center. He said it was different not to follow a bell, but Bourgart helps him and other newcomers adjust to the routine.
“We ask her questions,” said Robinson, who was excited to make tacos for lunch with his group.
Westendorf explained some students have trouble adjusting but enjoy the new schedule after high school. In a world without bells, young adults learn to decide what they’re doing and where they’re going without being told.
“For some people, the bell schedule’s never really their thing, so this really jives with them,” Westendorf said.
During community time, staff members work with students to master public transportation. Small groups take trips to Oak Park or go on inexpensive outings using the train. Students learn to read train schedules and plan their own outings after they leave the center.
“When they’re done with here, they’re going to have a lot more free time,” Chambers said.
The Transition Center follows the same calendar as York High School, so it’s closed on the same days and each day ends just past 3 p.m. Before everyone leaves, each person cleans their assigned area including the kitchen and bathroom.
Even though Bourgart admits chores can be a lot of work, everybody works together because they take pride in the center.
“At least we have lots of help,” she said with a smile.