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CHOICE serves as champion for special students

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Picture yourself at 18.

Do you remember how it felt to finally graduate high school, or maybe to vote for the first time? Can you recall how excited you were about becoming “an adult” or the nervousness that came with venturing out into the world on your own?

Imagine that same scenario, but this time, factor in a learning difference that might complicate your dreams of independence. Maybe you have autism or are nonverbal. Perhaps you deal with functional skill difficulties, struggle with basic reasoning or find it hard to communicate your feelings.

How would you handle that? What would you do?

Fortunately, students in the School District of Janesville have a CHOICE.

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Based in a well-kept home in the city’s Fourth Ward neighborhood, SDJ’s CHOICE program (Chestnut House Occupational Independent Community Exploration) is an application-based program for 18- to 21-year-old special education students who have specific disability related needs.

Though all students have met academic requirements for graduation, most are not fully prepared to be out on their own. CHOICE serves as a gateway to self-reliance by teaching not only basics such as cooking, cleaning and self-care but skills others take for granted such as comparison shopping, understanding friendships, navigating the city bus system and more.

“This program is important because it sets up our members to be the most independent version of themselves they can be,” said Jeremy Harnack, who is in his second year as CHOICE’s lead teacher. “We’re really the last step in public education for them. If they’ve gotten this far and they don’t have community supports in place, they could leave this period of their lives with nothing waiting for them.”

Though the district has owned Chestnut House for more than 30 years, the facility initially served as a working lab available to students only on an occasional basis. The current CHOICE format – which has been in place for about 15 years – is structured so two groups of students meet on opposing weekdays before coming together every Friday.

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Each morning, students discuss topics such as problem solving, time management, proper social etiquette and more before venturing out into the community for the afternoon. In between, they meet with advisors, maintain the home’s interior and prepare lunches with limited assistance.

“It’s a safe place where they can make mistakes while they’re learning skills,” explained Shana Ratzburg, the district’s transition specialist. “The confidence that is built through this program is amazing. If you ask any of our young adults if they can do something, I don’t think a single one will tell you, ‘No.’”

That confidence starts at the heart of the CHOICE program – Chestnut House. It is here students gather to meet with Harnack, Ratzburg and paraprofessionals Ronda Schyvinck and Kelley Hansen.

Schyvinck, who has spent 14 of her 23 years in the district at CHOICE, works largely with students to improve their familiarity with kitchen practices. In addition to teaching food preparation and appliance usage, Schyvinck is also the lead when it comes to showing parents exactly how capable their children can be.

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“I’ve seen a lot of students come through here, and it’s funny how when they start out, the parents are like ‘Oh, they could never take the bus alone’ or ‘Don’t let them cook because they might burn themselves,’” she said. “It’s amazing how, after one or two years, they have grown -- not only the students but the parents. We’ve had students who have moved out on their own where their parents never thought that would be a possibility.”

Hansen, who has been with CHOICE for four years, concentrates her attention mainly on students’ transportation needs. She teaches them how to navigate the city’s bus lines, rides with them while they are learning and uses phone apps to track them in real time when they are ready to commute solo.

“A lot of them come here scared to ride the bus. They come scared to go places. They come scared to work,” she said. “We go slowly to teach each one how to use the bus, and we can start back at square one when we need to.

“Right now, I have a student who, it’s time to start bus training,” she added. “His mom and dad are like, ‘Whoa, he’s never even crossed the road alone,’ so we’re taking baby steps. I’m like, ‘Don’t worry, I’m not going to leave him, and he’s not going to ride the bus alone until everybody’s comfortable – including you.’ Building that trust with our parents is so important.”

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Equally important is building confidence in students. That requires getting out and getting involved with the public – something Harnack stresses.

“What I want is for our program members to get out to places they’ve never been and meet people they would never meet,” Harnack said. “That opens up their world in a way that is different from the world individuals with learning differences had for decades.

“Where previously they were just sheltered, kind of kept to the side and made to be quiet, we want to do the opposite of that,” he added. “We want our voices to be loud, and we want to be part of the community. We want everybody to know who we are.”

Given the CHOICE program’s focus on community, field trips are an integral part of the curriculum. Outings have included tours of the local Festival Foods store, ANOTHER and the state capital building in Madison. Earlier this month, students attended a performance of “Elf” at the Janesville Performing Arts Center.

Volunteerism also is encouraged, and there are myriad opportunities provided. In addition to cleaning blankets and food bowls at the Humane Society of Southern Wisconsin, students also have washed garden tools at Rotary Botanical Gardens, pitched in at GIFTS Men’s Shelter, undergone hospitality training at Baymont Inn-Janesville, read to kindergarteners at Jackson Elementary School and more.

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“Our students with disabilities become adults with disabilities,” Ratzburg reasoned. “They’re in the community and they’re part of the community. This program allows them to become productive, involved members of that community.”

Peggy Tadder has seen firsthand the impact CHOICE can have on those it serves. Her daughter, Marlene, was a student in the program when Peggy’s husband and Marlene’s father, Tom, fell ill and died in 2018.

“We had a situation where I would go to work every day, and (Tom) was in a nursing home,” Peggy said. “But I knew (Marlene) was with people who loved her and who were looking out for her future. That meant so much to me because it was one thing I didn’t have on my shoulders at such a horrible time in my life.”

Today, Peggy’s outlook on the future is much brighter due to her daughter’s improved independence. She encourages families who are granted the opportunity to take part in the CHOICE program to “jump on it.”

“We were so fortunate, because (CHOICE) isn’t something everybody gets a chance to do,” Peggy said. “They (the advisors) were just so wonderful, and they taught (Marlene) things I would have never thought to teach her.

“The day will come when I’m not around anymore, and thanks to the Chestnut House and the CHOICE program, I know she will be prepared.”

For more information about the CHOICE program, contact SDJ Assistant Director of Pupil Services Thea Murphy at 608-743-5097 or tmurphy@janesville.k12.wi.us.

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