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A Class in Coping for Special Students

November 13, 1985|LIZ MULLEN | Times Staff Writer

"Forks, right?" Randy House, 15, asked hopefully as he looked into the utensil drawer of the kitchen.

But Susan Schmidt, who was teaching the class in daily living skills at Savanna High School in Anaheim, wasn't going to tell him how to set the table for the meal he and his classmates had prepared. "Look and see what you want to use," she said.

Schmidt wasn't being unhelpful; she was just trying to do her job. And teaching independence to students who have physical disabilities and emotional and learning problems is what a new program at Savanna High School is all about.

The classroom may be the only one in the nation that has a kitchen, living room and dining room furnished in early-American country style with a big overstuffed couch and a pewter tea set lining one wall. The Independent Living Skills Center, which operates on federal funds, is a pilot high school program that teaches children with special needs how to live on their own once they graduate from high school.

Last year, each of the 60 students in Savanna High School's special education program was asked to take a need-assessment test. The living skills curriculum being used for the first time this fall was designed around those needs, according to Vickie Pennington, project coordinator.

The students will learn such skills as how to find an apartment, get a job, meet a monthly budget, get a driver's license and prepare nutritious meals, said Pennington, who has a master's degree in occupational therapy from USC. "We want to give them some competence in learning for themselves. The system and the parents have often done (these things) for them, because it's easier."

The 60 students participating in the program spend the majority of their school day in a self-contained classroom with a special education teacher, Pennington said. Each student may spend one hour at the Independent Living Skills Center--either in group classes or individual counseling--two to four times a week. Pennington and two USC graduate students, who are working towards master's degrees in occupational therapy, teach the classes and provide the counseling.

The students in the program are trying to overcome such physical disabilities as cerebral palsy, epilepsy and paralysis, Pennington said. Four of the 60 students are in wheelchairs, and some have multiple disabilities.

Students with emotional problems may have spent time in psychiatric hospitals or juvenile hall, Pennington said, while those with learning disabilities may have dyslexia or problems communicating.

"The biggest concern of parents (of teen-agers) with special needs is what their kids will do when they leave high school," said Florence Clark, the project director and an associate professor of occupational therapy at USC. "Special education teachers are funded to teach academic skills. No one was teaching these kids how to cope."

Three-Year Program

Clark wrote the grant for the three-year program, which receives $95,000 a year from the Department of Education. The money pays for supplies for the center and Pennington's salary. The USC graduate students receive the tuition for the second year of their graduate program and a small stipend from the grant.

"We're the only high school-based independent living center in the nation," Clark said. A few high schools in the country have occupational services for physically handicapped teen-agers, she said, but the center is the only one "concerned with transition" into independent living.

The Anaheim Union High School District may continue funding for the program after the 1986-87 school year, pending an evaluation of the program, according to Bob Everhart, district director of special youth services.

Savanna High School Principal David Steinle said teachers and parents of special-needs children have long expressed "a tremendous need to help students outside the classroom." Since this program began, parents of disabled teen-agers attending the other seven high schools in district have expressed interest, and there is a possibility the program will be expanded to include other schools. Or students may be bused in by next year, Steinle said.

Julie Bissell, coordinator of occupational and physical therapy for the greater Anaheim Special Education Local Planning Area (SELPA), said the elementary school districts that feed into the high school district have had SELPA-funded occupational therapy services for special education students for years.

When Bissell, who earned a master's degree in occupational therapy from USC, heard about Clark's idea for a grant, she recommended the high school district for the program, she said. Savanna High School was chosen because it has the highest number of special education students of the district's seven high schools, Bissell said.

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