The Autism Society of Minnesota will engage public school educators and parents of and students with disabilities to improve student outcomes in employment and post-secondary education.
What has been most instrumental to your progress?:
The eleven Community Conversations (153 participants) offered in the metro area (6 sessions) and greater Minnesota (5 sessions) were critical to gathering information about local challenges of special education transition programs in our public schools which prepare students for work and college. Specifically, it was an opportunity for multiple stakeholders to come together to share their challenges and solutions from their own perspective. Collectively, the group gained a better understanding of how their individual role fit within the bigger picture of
preparing students with disabilities for work and college. Consequently, many participants left with new connections as well as one idea to implement immediately in their community to foster improvement. Many of the participants
commented that they thought having annual Community Conversations to continue the dialogue and foster collaboration would be helpful in order to continue information exchange, networking, and community awareness.
Through a collaboration with University of Minnesota, Institute on Community Integration, an online learning platform (Moodle) was created to house information and resources for the twelve metropolitan area schools that are part of the Competitive Employment Community of Practice. This learning platform will continue to be revised and expanded over time and will benefit new public schools who will become part of this community of practice. In addition to information and resources, it also has capability for chat, forums, and other tools for schools to share information with each other, which is critical in sharing real life challenges to implementing best practices.
Key lessons learned:
When working with multiple collaborators, it is important to be flexible in your action plans as new challenges and information emerges. While I believe I had a relatively accurate work plan for this grant, some things have needed to change as the process has moved forward due to the group learning process.
I was disappointed at not being able to determine a good strategy to engage a more culturally, diverse base of parents and students as well as interest from the business community. I have concluded that developing relationships with key leaders in these communities to get their support may be the best strategy to attract these stakeholders.
Reflections on inclusive, collaborative or resourceful problem-solving:
Inclusiveness was the most valuable element in this process. The Community Conversations were key in providing inclusiveness because it was an environment where not only, high school educators, higher education professionals, vocational rehabilitation representatives, independent living center staff, and local disability service providers engaged in the conversations but also family members and students with disabilities. Family members and students with disabilities commented in the Community Conversations that often they weren’t included as a part of the “professional” discussion and felt they aren’t seen as an equal
partner who can also bring solutions to the table. Overall, the ability of these multiple stakeholders, despite some disagreements, to come together in a collaborative way to exchange viewpoints made the conversations very powerful.
Understanding the problem:
The process has revealed some key areas of focus to improve employment and post-secondary opportunities for students with disabilities which include increasing work-based learning experiences; more education around impact of benefits (esp.
government disability benefits) and work; development of more effective collaborative models between schools, parents, government agencies and the community; as well as the need to ensure students have opportunities to practice self-advocacy and self-determination skills. All of these are well-known best practices in the special education transition field. The problem is that they haven’t been implemented at the school and community level effectively or in some cases at all for a variety of reasons. Those reasons can vary from lack of training for educators, students, and parents as well as an educational system focus on test
scores (mandated by federal law) alongside financial pressures on schools.
If you could do it all over again...:
I believe I had a pretty realistic expectation of the challenges that I would face working with multiple collaborators, especially those that involve public institutions and government agencies. Progress has been slower than I had hoped so I’ve had to focus on celebrating small milestones and appreciating that slow and steady will win the day. In addition, the realization that this is just the beginning of a multi-stage process.