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Transition Academy opens for district use: House to teach life skills to special needs students

January 15, 2019

WAUPUN — Waubun Transition Academy is ready to prepare intellectually disabled students for life after they graduate.

It will be part of a districtwide open house and tour Saturday from 1-4 p.m. at the facility at 623 S. Watertown St.

“Part of what we wanted to do here was make it seem like a home,” Waupun special needs teacher Jen Schramm said. “If we want to teach life skills, we want the environment to be as real-looking and feeling as possible. This reflects how our students can live if they get an apartment of their own and a job in the community. We want it to feel like real life.”

The house is the size of an average apartment and includes a living room, dining room, kitchen, bedroom, bathroom and laundry area. Everything is on the first floor — although the male students are eager to have a “man cave” in the basement. Supplies and furnishings for the space have been donated or were purchased using funds raised for that purpose.

Districts across the country are changing to better meet the needs of mentally challenged students. The 700-square-foot facility in Waupun is nonetheless miles ahead of many districts around the state and nation.

“It was quite a process, but everything came together exactly as we had hoped,” Director of Student Services Wendi Dawson said in an earlier interview. “Other districts are doing similar things to meet these special educational needs, but our situation is pretty unique in a lot of ways. We are hoping to be a trend-setter and a front-runner in preparing our special education students for life after high school.”

Providing a home environment is central to success in the real world, according to Schramm.

“What we teach has to be practical and it has to be taught in a variety of environments,” she said. “Otherwise skills that are taught in one environment can’t be applied anywhere else.”

Schramm tells a story about a student who was taught — in the school setting — how to use a toilet brush. In a different environment, the brush was pink, so he didn’t know what to do with it.

“Something that we might take for granted — a toilet brush — is something that can really be a challenge for students with different abilities,” Schramm said.

She tells another story about a fire alarm. In school, when a fire alarm goes off everyone has to leave the building. In an apartment, however, tossing burnt toast into the sink and waving a dish towel at the alarm would likely be a better solution.

The Waupun School District pursued its newest — and smallest — facility with those types of challenges in mind.

“That’s why we decided to gather together the support of the community and the school board and the city of Waupun to allow us to purchase the property we did,” Dawson said.

Contractor Jim DeVries offered the 700-square-foot home for just under $30,000. The house had no electricity, plumbing or HVAC. The foundation was saved, but the upper half was entirely reconstructed. At the time of purchase, it had new interior and exterior walls, a new roof and a new subfloor — all within a two-block walk from the school.

Total costs are now estimated at between $50,000 and $55,000.

Schramm has taken on a multitude of tasks herself, painting a large coffee table and purchasing fabric for a chair she donated and had reupholstered by a friend. Her husband, family and friends have all contributed time and effort to complete the project.

She is also keen to having the latest in technology.

“We want it to be a smart house, with voice commands to turn lights and other items on and off,” she said. “The goal for me is to use affordable technology to assist people with disabilities, because it can do so much for them.”

Motorized window blinds could also be controlled using that technology.

Sensory stimulation is also important, with a “bubble wall” installed in the bedroom with the capability of changing the colors, sound and other features.

“We have a bubble tube at the junior/senior high school and the kids all love it,” Schramm said.

A high school student did a new layout for the space. Along the way, planners and students learned a lot about making the building compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The agriculture maintenance class removed interior stud walls and put up new ones. Volunteer contractors helped complete the work, along with the high school home maintenance class, which did the insulation and the drywall installation and finishing.

Funding has come from many sources, including a federal grant to cover the home’s purchase price and closing costs. Special education flow-through funds were used to cover remodeling costs. Many building materials were purchased through a federal grant for special education. District funding was used to create the bathroom, with a tile floor and a wheelchair-accessible shower, toilet and sink.

Help has also come from parent advocate Tara Rhodes. Rhodes donated her $500 district salary to the cause, which has helped to purchase a variety of needed items.

“When you consider what we’re trying to accomplish, we’re very fortunate to have so much help from the community and making it so manageable,” Dawson said. “The building has provided a largely blank slate to create an educational environment optimal to what we need for our students.”

There are currently 10 students eligible to participate in the program, although more use is anticipated.

“We’re so blessed to have this opportunity, and so much support from the community,” Schramm said. “It’s our sweet little house, and will help our students in so many ways to lead better lives.”

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