While the Bryan County schools transition program, parent mentoring program and Interagency Transition Council are three separate entities, they are all working for the same end result.
These three groups are helping Bryan County’s special education students prepare for transitions both in school and after graduation.
Transition Coordinator Chris Elkins is currently in his first year of the position for Bryan County schools, but has been a special ed teacher in the district for 11 years. He said the transition position was created seven years ago.
"My main mission is to help students with disabilities make that successful transition from 8th grade into high school and then college or employment. We steer them to supportive programs to help them make that jump, so they don’t feel quite so overwhelmed," Elkins said. "We want to foster independence; we try to give them the tools so they can achieve their goals and be as productive as possible."
Elkins compared much of his daily work with students to acting as a ‘bridge’ for them.
"I’m connecting these students and parents to services they can access. I want them to leave here and know they have the tools, information and contacts they need," he said.
Director of Special Education in Bryan County Frank Williams said the transition efforts help ‘begin with the end.’
"For students with disabilities, unless there’s a systematic way of beginning with the end in mind – looking at the appropriate outcome based on that child’s strengths, dreams, aspirations, limits and resources, etc. – if we don’t know what those are, we’re not going to be able to back up early enough to start equipping them with the resources they need to acquire that dream," Williams said.
Williams said the law, based under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA) of 2004, requires the schools to start with transition in 8th grade before the move to high school.
But, he said they’re asking teachers to start thinking about it in earlier grades with young elementary students, so the transition can help drive the schools’ objectives and goals with students with disabilities
Becky Bryant, parent mentor for Bryan County schools, pointed out once a child graduates from high school, they go from being under IDEA to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Once on the college level, everything is on the students’ shoulders and while the assistance is there, students are expected to access the services themselves.
"Students have to advocate for themselves and I’ve been told we’re already ahead of a lot of other school systems here," Elkins said.
Elkins said Goodwill Industries and the Georgia Department of Labor also work with Bryan County schools with post high school plans.
He said there are local businesses that have hired students with disabilities and helped them develop career skills, while others have gone to Chatham and Liberty counties.
Bryant, a parent mentor, said her job comes from a lot of personal experience. She has two sons with disabilities.
"That’s one of the eligibilities," she said. "What I do is also like a bridge between the parents and the school; I’m trying to help them understand all the processes. I work with children from pre-k all the way through 12th grade and I’m here to answer questions."
Bryant said she’s one of the proponents of the Bryan County Interagency Transition Council (BCITC). It is not affiliated with the school district and is a parent-driven group, created about a year ago. The group aims to support the transition of students with disabilities to live, learn and work in the community.
"It’s grown significantly, we have parents coming in, about 10 to 15 every meeting," Bryant said. "They let us know what they think they need, what they’re facing down the road and who they’d like to hear from."
Elkins said they try to get a different guest speaker for each meeting, who can touch on a variety of topics.
The group meets every third Thursday at 6:30 p.m., in the Family Center at the St. Anne’s church. Anyone with input, ideas or questions is encouraged to attend.
Rotarian Tina Eberlein pointed out that BCITC is a call to action for Bryan County’s business community.
"I’ve seen the difference between an individual who doesn’t have a chance and doesn’t have an opportunity, and an individual who succeeds," she said. "These are individuals who really want a chance. Typically, employees with disabilities are very loyal and hardworking; they’ll be one of your best employees ever."