By Jennifer Eisenbart

Editor

For years, Burlington Area School District administrators wondered just how to best provide special education services to students ages 14 to 21 – and keep variety in the lesson plan.

The end result, which has been in place now for 11 years, is the Project Active Citizen House. Students ages 18 to 21 are at the house from about 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., “receiving training on things the rest of us take for granted,” explained BASD Director of Special Education Gail Spitzenberger.

“They receive home living skills training, they are out in the community – whether it’s at the Wellness Center, library, post office,” Spitzenberger explained.

While the PAC House is currently at 348 Paul Street, the district is looking to purchase a property at 340 Church Street for additional space and amenities.

While concerns were raised at last week’s City Council meeting regarding the PAC House being a group home, the facility is more a classroom than a living facility, according to Spitzenberger and BASD Superintendent Peter Smet.

It doesn’t surprise them, though, that they have to explain what goes on there.

“We live in this world of education,” Smet said. “And it’s in our world, so we think everyone’s concerned about it, and they’re not.”

Added Spitzenberger, “People don’t read about things, people don’t pay attention to things that aren’t in their world.”

The PAC House is a cooperative agreement between BASD and the Waterford Union High School District, with Union Grove initially included but since having dropped out.

Spitzenberger said the district started the program because students with “significant special needs” would find themselves in the same program from age 14 to 21. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Spitzenberger said, dictates that students have a right to education until then, but also be prepared for post-secondary education.

Since special education involves any student with an individual education plan, students range in capability. The IDEA defines 11 different “impairment” areas, which range from emotional issues to hearing and visual impairment to autism to specific learning disabilities.

Those students are required by the act to have post-secondary goals, “and we work our way through it,” Spitzenberger said.

The PAC House allows students to learn everyday living skills like reading a menu (or how to order without an interpreter), purchasing stamps, following a grocery list, kitchen skills and safety.

Students also learn the importance of volunteering in the community, the “active citizen” part of the PAC House.

Some go to jobs during the day at the house, others to a job coach. There is also extended teaching in job interview skills, phone skills, employment portfolios and how to interact.

Michelle LeBas-Bowen is the district’s full-time teacher at the facility, hired by BASD. Waterford provides three aides at the home. She was a speech pathologist for the program before taking over as the program’s leader this year.

“I just really believe in helping students be as independent as they can be,” LeBas-Bowen said.

She’s excited about the expanded space, given the district has been renting space in a duplex for the first 11 years. She said students would be able to work on multiple projects at one time at the new home, and students who couldn’t utilize the basement due to mobility issues will have more space on the ground floor.

“We can grill, or have a garden,” she said. “It’ll be more of a home.”

That home, though, will be just for a set number of hours a day, said Smet, calling it a classroom outside of the high school.

The model has been so successful the district has been asked to speak about it other places.

“We’ve been at different conventions,” Spitzenberger said. “We’ve been requested at conventions because people want to emulate our model.

“In the educational community, we are more well-known,” she added. “And that model is one that is out in the community, versus a fabricated apartment set up in a high school.”

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