Leaving Homewood-Flossmoor High School in June will be difficult for Mary LaBotz, who has shared her heart with special needs students for 31 years.
Those three decades have given LaBotz experiences at all ends of the special education spectrum. She spent 10 years working in a behavioral disordered/emotionally disturbed classroom, then 10 years in Life Skills helping special students develop skills that enabled them to manage on their own.
The past 11 years, LaBotz has been the director of the Vocational Achievement for Successful Transition (VAST) Program that she helped found for H-F graduates still eligible for special education services. VAST helps them develop job skills and improve their life skills.
It used to be that those students, typically 18 to 22 years old, went into a program run by SPEED, a special education cooperative. LaBotz looked at the cost and knew there was a better, less expensive solution to prepare them with skills to earn a paycheck. Today VAST is a model that other districts try to emulate, LaBotz said.
VAST serves 26 students, who spend half the day at H-F working on job skills and half at a job. She calls it an “amazing program because of the opportunities the kids have.”
VAST enrollees have graduated from H-F, “so they don’t take tests, get grades or report cards,” LaBotz explains. “Everything they do (in VAST) is for a reason: this is going to help you. This is how you read your paycheck, and this is how you find an apartment, plan budgets.”
Students are bussed to job sites and supervised. After several weeks some don’t need daily supervision. While they’re in the program they don’t typically get paid, but LaBotz said many of her students have gotten jobs at their job site or at other businesses because they developed applicable skills.
A program like VAST is one of the major changes LaBotz has seen in special education. More special needs students and adults are out in the world.
“They mingle with other kids. They don’t put us down in the basement by the furnace anymore. We’re out there. We’re visible and I think they’re more accepting of it all the way around,” LaBotz said.
VAST students are together for three or four years. It’s difficult for her when they turn 22 and leave. This year the picture’s reversed. The VAST students are going to be the ones saying goodbye to their teacher.
“I am going to miss my kids and their families. I work very closely with them. And I spend more time with their kids than they do one-to-one, and it’s starting to hit all of us,” LaBotz reflected.
This story first appeared in the May 2016 print edition of the Chronicle.