Garrett Anz may by less than a month into his first year in the Midway Independent School District’s transition program for special needs students, but he is already learning skills he never would have in a classroom.

He is learning job skills at a local hospital. He is learning how to do his own laundry and cook his own meals. He is learning how to be independent.

The transition program, called MPower, helps students with special needs who have left high school transition into adult life by teaching them life and work skills, district Transition Specialist Kimberly Johnson said. This year, the program moved into its own building behind Panther Stadium and serves 18 Midway ISD students.

“Moving into this building made us more adult and really allowed us to help the students transition into adulthood,” Johnson said. “We can focus more on being separate adults and going out into the community more.”

Anz, 19, went to work at Baylor Scott & White Hillcrest Medical Center on Thursday morning with a group of students. They wiped down the tables in the hospital’s cafe and made sure the space was sparkling clean, receiving valuable work training they would not receive without the MPower Program.

“He just started the program, and he’s doing a great job,” said Jason Alexander, Anz’s teacher.

Some students go out to job sites, including the hospital, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, while others go on Wednesdays. Mondays and Fridays are for life skills training, community outings and data collection for the teachers.

Every Friday, students go to Hunterwood Apartments in Woodway to practice cooking, cleaning and doing other chores, such as laundry. They use the apartment’s model unit and clean it, change the sheets and make lunch, property manager Cora Kimble said.

“It teaches the life skills outside the school setting,” she said.

Kimble said she wishes more properties would get involved with the program because it is rewarding for all involved. This is the second year Hunterwood has worked with MPower students. At the end of last school year, the apartment complex bought and grilled hot dogs for the students as a treat for them.

While the transition program is not new to Midway, its separate facility is. Midway ISD held a ribbon cutting and open house on the first day of school, Aug. 20. The MPower students were mixed in with the high school students, but now they are among only adults.

“We get them as close to being independent as they’re going to be from here,” Johnson said. “Otherwise, a lot of these kids would go right into an institutional or day care setting.”

MPower staff work with the Texas Workforce Commission to help train the students and set them up with jobs, Johnson said. Former MPower students have worked at pet stores, grocery stores and Baylor University, but mostly they work entry-level jobs.

“Hopefully, we’ll still grow from there, but that’s what we’re doing is prepping them to be working, viable citizens in our community,” she said.

Johnson said she is looking for work experience for the students other than retail and kitchen service work. The program has worked with the hospital for at least six years.

Students can stay in the MPower Program until they are 21 years old, but it is a decision made by the Special Education Department’s Admission, Review and Dismissal committee, which meets yearly. The length of students’ stays in the program depends on their goals.

“This is all based on individual needs,” teacher Jackie Searles said.

She spent Thursday morning with the group of students who stayed on campus. They started their morning with a meeting, sitting around a table and talking about their goals for the day. Searles also talked about what their program name means.

“MPower means to give others the tools and the attitude to live their lives, right?” she asked the group of students. “We’re living our best lives, friends. We are becoming more and more independent each day.”

The students then switched to their individual tasks for the morning, while Searles played some jazz music lightly. It is Searles’ second year as a transition teacher — or “employer,” as the students call her. Before joining the school district, she worked in a clinical setting doing behavioral therapy, but she missed being in the classroom. Her passion for teaching the transition students was palpable.

“Special education is really fun because you get to teach place skills,” she said. “You get to teach those reclamation skills that you wouldn’t get to teach maybe in another type of setting.”

As the students near the completion of their programs, the transition staff will help them get work, and a job coach can be assigned to the students through the Texas Workforce Commission Vocational Rehabilitation program, Johnson said. It depends on what the students needs.

“It’s all about meeting students where they’re at, their individual needs,” Searles said. “Our overall goal is to make them as independent as possible.”

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Brooke Crum joined the Tribune-Herald as the education reporter in January 2019. She has worked for the Springfield News-Leader in Missouri, Abilene Reporter-News, Beaumont Enterprise and the Port Arthur News. Crum graduated from TCU in Fort Worth.

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