NOTE: Each week throughout the school year, we will visit a school across Eastern Carver County Schools. Some weeks the plan may be to stop in multiple classrooms by grade, or by subject. Other weeks it may highlight a certain specialist group. The purpose is to give families and our community a glimpse into the every-day learning environment happening in our buildings. A chance to spotlight the incredible work our teachers and staff do on a daily basis for our students, and to showcase the incredible work our students produce as well. So, keep your Eye on ECCS!
The end of the day is near, the week is almost complete. There’s freshly made vanilla ice cream in the commons area. Emily Black suggests to the remaining students in her classroom to head down to grab a bowl.
One student declines. He has had trouble logging into a program on his Chromebook. Emily – staff at STAR Transition program go by their first names with the young adults – would rather wait until Monday to reset the password, but she senses the importance to the young man. The ice cream can wait.
Fifteen minutes later, at the end-of-the-day classroom meeting, with all in the room sharing their weekend plans and favorite part of the day, the student has many things to be thankful for, including regaining access to the program he so desperately wanted.
STAR, or Steps Toward Adult Responsibility, is an 18-to-21-year-old post high school special education transition program available to students of Eastern Carver County Schools as determined by their Individual Education Plan (IEP) team.
The program focuses on the transition areas of employment, post-secondary education or training, and where appropriate independent living. The STAR program is designed to assist students in preparing for success in adult life by focusing on student and team identified transition outcomes.
For Ms. Black, the school’s longest tenured special education teacher in the building, she calls this part of her personal career journey the “most rewarding.”
“I’d say one-third of the students here I had as elementary students and now I have them as adults. The dramatic differences I see in each of them as 18-year-olds to six- or seven-year-olds is inspiring. I feel honored to be here to close out their educational journey,” she said.
Black was a special education teacher at Chaska Elementary for a decade before joining the STAR program in 2015. Heather Czechowicz worked at Chaska Middle School East and Pioneer Ridge Middle School before moving to STAR in 2017. Rhonda Reuter worked in five district buildings, four in secondary, while Nanci Kallop is the newest teacher, coming on board last January.
“People really love working here. I always say that we waited patiently for an opening here,” program supervisor Patricia Lange said. Lange was a special education coordinator at Chaska Middle School West and Pioneer Ridge Middle School as well as Clover Ridge Elementary. Her background as an occupational therapist made the transition one she has no regrets about.
“This is such my jam. We’re so unique, how we can partner with so many businesses and programs to provide the best opportunity possible for these students,” Lange said.
Black said there has been “massive” changes to the program in recent years. At one time, STAR rented an apartment and had six students. Previous locations also included a rental property above the Chanhassen DMV. The current location on Lake Hazeltine Drive in Chaska, in an industrial park west of Chanhassen High School, provides tremendous space for the program.
In addition to classrooms, the space includes a workforce room, a kitchen and culinary space, a recreation and activities room, a sensory calming space, and an added area with a washer and dryer. Many of the spaces have been updated in recent years.
Instructional seminars include home living where students learn about clothing care, home cleaning and maintenance, and transportation options. Consumer planning has students come up with a plan or list of what to purchase, navigating through stores, comparing prices, considering value, and making purchases.
Meal prep, personal finance, personal health, and social living are among the many seminars students receive through STAR.
“Each student, each teacher, beyond the morning meeting, has a different daily schedule that tailors to their post-education transition goals,” Lange said.
Many of the 36 current students – that number will likely increase closer to 40 in the coming weeks – work two or three days a week with partnering businesses. Seven students have jobs at Chanhassen and Chaska high schools in food service, others are at Goodwill, Subway, local libraries, Ladybug Child Care Center and Quantum Controls, in which students help to manufacture circuit boards, to name a few.
The list of partnerships continues to grow each year, Lange said.
It is in the workforce room where students learn the skills they will need to perform in their jobs. Work experience coordinator Carol Vilendrer has set-up stations for many activities such as sorting and shelving, hardware and mechanical, towel and clothes folding, and job exploration.
STAR students have their own business selling STAR treats (dog biscuits) that they make from scratch and STAR bags (heat pads) that they learn to cut, measure, sew, and sell to consumers. NOTE: it is confirmed, my yellow lab, Cooper, very much enjoyed the peanut butter dog treats, and my lower back very much enjoyed the heat pad after a day at the apple orchard.
A visit to Ms. Czechowicz’s afternoon meeting shows the overall importance of a program like STAR. Young adults all so unique, some who may graduate after one year, some who may after three years – the 2022 graduation class was the largest in program history with 18 – yet in this space all are welcome, all are loved.
“The pandemic was really hard on these kids. There was nothing for them. For us to be here together, to have the social interaction among the students and the teachers – we have such a wide spectrum of students – it’s just amazing to see each day. I love it,” Lange said.
To learn more about the STAR program, check out their Facebook page for many highlights.