EDMOND — Life after high school has taken years of family planning for Sahara Dodd.
Sahara, a freshman at Deer Creek High School, has Down syndrome and difficulty verbalizing. Her mother, Monique Dodd, said the family has long considered Sahara’s educational options — likely a vocational school — and potential job opportunities she could pursue.
The question for the Dodd family isn’t whether Sahara will build job skills, but rather which ones.
“I think one of the most important things that people need to remember about our children is that they’re teachable,” Dodd said. “They’re able to do just as any average student could do, and sometimes they’re better at it than the average student.
“She will be among the public and learn to contribute just like other members of society.”
The transition from high school to adult life is central to Deer Creek’s special education program, and the district says it has invested in this initiative in a way few school systems have.
To better develop independent living skills, Deer Creek is building a 4,000-square-foot Transition Center equipped with home and work simulations — a facility the district believes is the first in Oklahoma for a K-12 school district.
Students will learn to cook for themselves, do laundry and maintain their personal health once it’s finished this spring, barring delays.
“You can only create so much in a classroom, but if you had an actual house setting, you can accomplish a lot more,” special education teacher Nick Pettit said.
How the program works
To develop marketable skills, Deer Creek connects special education students with local businesses, postsecondary schools and government agencies that offer job training. They’re also linked with programs and tasks within the high school that relate to their aptitudes and interests.
Brighton Squires, who has an intellectual disability, graduated from Deer Creek last year. During her junior and senior year, the school helped her join a culinary arts and hospitality certification program at Francis Tuttle Technology Center to involve her in an industry suited to her strong social skills. She’s now in job training at a local hospital.
“The (Deer Creek) program is very intentional about making sure that the students with special needs maximize what they have to offer,” Brighton’s mother, Heather Squires, said. “Whatever their strengths are, they will access those, find out what they are and really work with that.”
After graduating high school, Brighton still needed to develop knowledge necessary to live on her own, said Squires, who still belongs to a parent group supporting Deer Creek students with special needs.
What some children learn in a week could take years for Brighton to master. That makes essential tasks like grocery shopping and tying shoe laces a challenge, Squires said.
The Transition Center will create an environment where students learn to care for themselves, said Olivia Seefeldt, a special education teacher at Deer Creek.
“Right now, we don’t have a big kitchen. We don’t have a real bed. We have laundry machines, but it’s not the same kind of feel as if you were in a real house,” Seefeldt said. “It’ll just be able to give us more space and more area to teach them things we wish we could teach them now but we just don’t have the space to do it.”
More to come in the future
The center is the product of bond funds and more than a decade of fundraising. By the district’s early estimate, its yearly budget could exceed $669,000.
Building the facility was a goal throughout the eight-year tenure of Deer Creek’s newly retired superintendent, Ranet Tippens. Now, it’s beginning to take shape.
The district invited students, parents, teachers and others involved in the project to sign beams supporting the building at a ceremony Dec. 14.
“This has been a long-standing dream,” Tippens said during the event. “Our dream is just about to be reality.”
Reporter Nuria Martinez-Keel covers K-12 and higher education throughout the state of Oklahoma. Have a story idea for Nuria? She can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @NuriaMKeel. Support Nuria’s work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today at subscribe.oklahoman.com.