Schools can 'bridge' a brighter future for youth with disabilities

University Park, Pa. -- For several decades, federal legislation has been aimed at improving the post-high school outcomes of youth with disabilities. However, students with disabilities continue to be more likely than their peers to end up being unemployed, underemployed or socially isolated.

One reason, says a Penn State researcher, may be the extent of the services and support that these students are receiving in the middle schools and high schools.
“Transitioning students with disabilities generally do not receive as much support as they need to enter postsecondary institutions of higher education or employment and be successful,” said Frank Rusch, professor of special education.

Rusch has done extensive research on the eventual placement of youth with disabilities in post-high school settings. He notes that high schools routinely provide student counseling to assist exiting students prepare for postsecondary entrance exams and obtain funding. But it’s the students who do not have disabilities who tend to benefit.

In his 2007 book "Beyond High School: Preparing Adolescents for Tomorrow's Challenges" (2nd edition), Rusch outlines the track records of students with disabilities as they progress through middle and high school. The author noted that students with disabilities tend to depart school as early as age 14, and again in record numbers at age 17, just before they enter high school and just before their senior year in high school, respectively.

Rusch and several of his former students published an article titled “Toward Self-Directed Learning, Post-High School Placement, and Coordinated Support: Constructing New Transition Bridges to Adult Life,” which appeared last year in the journal Career Development for Exceptional Individuals. Co-authors are Carolyn Hughes (now a faculty member at Vanderbilt University), Martin Agran (University of Wyoming), James E. Martin (The University of Oklahoma), and John R. Johnson (San Diego State University).

In their article, the authors propose the construction of three “transition bridges” that can lead to positive student outcomes and helpful support services. These bridges are designed to promote self-directed learning. By moving the schools toward implementation of pertinent activities, the bridges are designed to help direct schools toward activities that will result in youth attaining their goals.

-- Bridge 1 entails the teaching of self-determination. This bridge suggests that middle schools teach students with disabilities how to become self-directed learners. Later, when they enter high school, the students would be better able to benefit from planning and preparation based on their preferences, interests, cultural expectations, and values.

-- Bridge 2 focuses on placement after high school. It calls upon high school students to identify where they would like to continue their postsecondary education or what workforce arena they’d like to enter. The students, while still in high school, would receive placement-related training and assistance prior to their departing high school in areas that relate directly to their goals and aspirations. Schools would be responsible for engaging postsecondary institutions of learning to help students identify their post-high school placement choices and complete all required entrance-related activities during their final year of high school. If the goal of the student is employment, schools would work with the student in identifying the job that best meets his or her interest and needs. Final year activities might include providing work-study options that result in school credit and actual employment of the student in occupations that match the student’s interests and needs. 

-- Bridge 3 calls for high schools to identify and provide suitable postsecondary services and supports that focus on student educational retention or long-term employment. High schools would coordinate with either higher education institutions or local employment agencies before the students are placed in their desired post-high school settings. The schools also would identify how supports would be delivered after placement and who is responsible for delivering these supports.

“These bridges are critical for students with disabilities to be successful before, during, and after high school,” said Rusch.

Rusch directed a 15-year center, funded by the U.S. Department of Education, which assisted more than 450 transition model programs in providing transition-related services. “In my experience, I found that model programs that implemented all three bridges were more successful than those that provided one or two of the bridges,” he says.

Rusch is currently looking for school districts across the nation that would like to participate in the implementation and evaluation of these transition bridges. Interested school administrators are urged to e-mail Rusch (frr3@psu.edu).

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Last Updated October 14, 2010