A VAST improvement for high school students

Penn Grad student Olivia Messina helps VAST LIFE participant Josie Torres on a tour of the Penn Museum in University City.

University of Pennsylvania’s Vocational Academic Social Skills Training Life Skills Independence Functional Experiences (or VAST LIFE program) has been life-changing for high school students with moderate to severe disabilities like Joselito “Josie” Torres, 19, who attends Olney Charter High School, 100 W. Duncannon Ave. in Olney.

The VAST LIFE program pairs high school students with moderate to severe disabilities with Penn graduate students, who are working towards a masters of education degree and special education certification. Heather Hopkins, a Penn Graduate School of Education professor and leader of GSE’s special education curriculum, said the program was originally designed to provide graduate students with the first-hand experience they need in order to earn their special education certification in Pennsylvania.

“There are about 500 competencies that candidates have to be able to show the university before they can receive certification,” the Oreland resident said. “About 100 of those competencies deal with a population of students with ‘low incidence’ disabilities, who require skilled intervention. These are kids who are likely going to be cared for some degree for the majority of their adult life.”

According to the Center for Public Education, low-incidence disabilities account for about two percent of the U.S. population. “The graduate student’s sole job is to create what we call community-based instruction,” said Hopkins, who developed the program five years ago. “Instruction is customized to help the student learn things like navigating the public transportation system, eating out, socializing and looking for jobs in the community. The program gives families a valuable resource, and it’s 100 percent free.”

Hopkins said the school is currently accepting applications for the program, which runs five Saturdays from January through May; each session runs for six hours from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Every Saturday, the graduate students and high school students travel to a different location including Penn Museum, Reading Terminal and City Tap House.

Monica Page-Torres, Josie’s mother, 42, said the program has helped her son become more confident and communicate better by interacting with other students his age. She said until recently he had difficulty purchasing items in a store. Josie, who has Lowe syndrome, characterized by vision problems including cataracts that are present at birth, kidney problems and intellectual disabilities, had difficulty counting cash and change and using a debit or credit card.

“The program has taught him skills he needs to be able to make a purchase such as price comparing, counting money and knowing how much change he has left,” said the fourth-grade teacher. “All special needs children are different. I have noticed a total transformation in my son since he began the program three years ago.

“It’s hard to get him to do certain things because of his personality. The graduate student provides the extra nudge and support he needs to perform a task. My husband and I tried to teach him how to take public transportation once. He is really good with directions, but I am kind of afraid for him to do it by himself. He is kind of a momma’s boy. We just want him to interact with kids his own age. Before he participated in the program, he had difficulty maintaining a steady conversation with other teenagers.”

Page-Torres said when her son ages out of the system or graduates, he will lose his “entitlement” to special education services and support systems that help him maintain and build crucial life skills. Under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), public schools are required to provide special education services for all children with disabilities ages three through 21 at no cost to the families. The services these students receive are aimed to help them achieve not only in school but also at work or at home. “A lot of parents will say to me that there is nothing else that does this for their kids,” said Hopkins. “Parents will talk about how they sit at parties and listen to other parents talk about their child playing T-ball or soccer, and they think ‘I wish my kid was invited.’”

She added that at the end of the program, parents not only receive a transitional assessment but also get to watch videos of their kids getting off the subway and crossing the street, ordering lunch and paying for it and interacting socially with other students and community members. “For these parents, from the moment their kids are born, they are constantly being told how to fix their kid. This is one of the few opportunities to see their child in a different light.”

Lila Jonas, one of the first graduate students to participate in the program, said initially she was nervous and wondered if she would be able to give the students the type of support they needed from a teacher. “As soon as I met my student, Max, I immediately felt comfortable,” she said. “VAST LIFE showed me all the ways I could be a teacher and pushed me to learn more about myself and about everyone in the world around us.”

For more information about VAST LIFE, go to https://www2.gse.upenn.edu/utrp/vastlife.