CHICAGO — Heaven Lockhart had a busy last week of school before her graduation in May.

The 21-year-old wrapped up her last few days of classes, decorated her graduation cap in art class and went to her school’s prom — in the sparkly silver dress and matching shoes she picked out herself.

Then came the culmination of seven years of hard work.

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After four years of high school and three years at Southside Occupational Academy, a public special education school in Chicago, she donned a royal blue gown and walked across the stage to receive her high school diploma. Her family, classmates and teachers cheered her on from the audience.

The tight-knit school community at Southside provided more than an education for Lockhart. It provided work training in housekeeping, a part-time paid job and plenty of chances to flex her basketball skills through Special Olympics competitions.

“I’m going to miss my friends, teachers, my principal, the security guards,” Lockhart said on a recent afternoon.

But she is also looking to the future and will enroll in a two-year program at Richard J. Daley College designed for students with disabilities while she continues to work three days a week in her paid custodial role with Hyatt. In the future, she hopes to continue volunteering with the Special Olympics organization and said she would love to work at the foundation.

For students with disabilities, graduation and life beyond school — including full-time employment and independent living — can seem out of reach, as traditional school models and curricula are not typically catered to students who need individual education plans.

In Chicago Public Schools, students in special education lag behind their peers in graduating from high school, with roughly 75% of students getting their diplomas in four years in 2023, compared with 85% of CPS students not in special education.

Under Illinois state law, students with significant cognitive disabilities are entitled to up to four years of continued education at what are known as “transitional schools” after their traditional four years in high school, up until they turn 22 years old.

But for special education graduates, transitional schools like Southside can provide a bridge from school to the workforce through specialized instruction, social-emotional learning and opportunities to complete paid work at Chicago companies throughout the school year.

In May, around 80 students at Southside graduated with their high school diplomas and work experience.

“This is a space … to hone a student’s skills in whatever their time beyond us looks like,” said Jim McGuire, a special education teacher at Southside. “Whether it’s somebody who’s employed and will really be working towards full-time competitive employment, or some students where it’s most meaningful for them to continue to work on those skills to really contribute at home.”

Southside is one of four such specialized schools across the district, and between its two campuses in Englewood and Lower West Side, the school enrolls about 400 students. The district has another transitional school on the Near South Side, and two others are located on the North Side.

“We are sort of the South Side transition center for every neighborhood on the South Side,” McGuire said.

Southside students also take courses related to living independently. Topics range from learning how to use public transportation in the city to taking care of one’s own apartment.

Lockhart enrolled at Southside three years ago after attending South Shore High School, a large feeder school to Southside. She began at the Englewood campus for one year, before moving to the Lower West Side campus, called “the Hub” by the staff.

Students who move to the Hub are primarily focused on gaining real-life work experience at one of the school’s 12 work sites across the city, where students work in industries such as hospitality, parks and recreation and museums.

“We have all kinds of different opportunities and a lot of times our students really do show a strong skill set in those internships and oftentimes they’re offered opportunities to interview for permanent part time positions,” McGuire said.

In her second year, Lockhart began working part-time in housekeeping at a Hyatt Centric downtown once a week through Southside’s partnerships with the company. In addition, she worked in a paid custodial role for Hyatt, cleaning corporate office spaces twice a week outside of her school hours.

By her third year at Southside, she received a promotion at the company, she explained proudly, and performed her housekeeping duties independently without supervision.

“I really enjoy housekeeping. I clean the tables and do dishes,” Lockhart said of her job.

Southside also led her to pursue sports through the Special Olympics foundation in her extra time, and around the school, she is known for her layups in basketball games.

Her mother, Radisha Walker, said she was “overwhelmed with joy” at her daughter’s graduation ceremony.

“I’m just really proud of her,” Walker said. “She’s so goal driven and has the willpower that she’s not going to give up for anything. She’s going to keep trying.”

Southside students also take courses related to living independently. Topics range from learning how to use public transportation in the city to how to take care of your own apartment.

“We’re very focused on the individual and the path and what works best for them because the future is coming up quick,” said principal Jennifer Bollinger, who has led the school for 13 years. “Some students are here for four years, some are here for a year, so we try to adapt to whatever they need.”

Elijah Winston also found his way into the housekeeping program at Southside after graduating from Morgan Park High School, and has held a hospitality job the past two years.

Despite his success in the program, he has his heart set on breaking into another field: live entertainment.

Winston said he has been interested in musicals since he was a young boy and first saw “Hairspray.”

In the past year leading up to graduation, Winston, 21, auditioned twice for professional shows as an actor, including one at the Chicago Kids Company. He is also writing song lyrics and producing music he hopes to one day release.

“I’m trying to put my work out there,” he said.

When Winston received word of his first audition, two of his teachers at Southside helped him put together professional headshots prior to the audition.

“If you have a disability and you’re trying to find a job, it’s hard out there to find the right job,” Winston said.

At the school’s graduation ceremony, teachers leaned on the school’s two daily mantras as they sent the graduates off: Respect others and believe in yourself.

In McGuire’s class, 11 of his 13 students graduated this spring, including Lockhart and Winston.

After years of meetings with students and parents to craft the right education for each individual student, McGuire was emotional talking about his students’ future career aspirations, as each prepare to forge ahead on their own path.

“There’s just a lot of tears and just a collective feeling of ‘We did it,'” he said of seeing his students transition to their next stage of life. “This student is ready for the world in ways they couldn’t have anticipated.”

© 2024 Chicago Tribune
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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