Lyme-Old Lyme program making good citizens

Alexa Agostine, 20, a graduate of Lyme-Old Lyme High School, worked at a computer at Old Lyme Town Hall on a recent winter morning, helping to make digital copies of paper assessor records dating back to the 1960s.

Agostine, who started as a summer intern and now has been assisting at Town Hall for almost two years, said she enjoys talking to people and learning how to use computer programs and troubleshoot, skills that will help in her future career.

"She is an independent worker," said Liz Stopa, her instructional assistant for Lyme-Old Lyme's post-graduate program. She said she has seen Agostine grow tremendously.

Students, teachers and aides from Lyme-Old Lyme High School's Life Skills and 18-21 Transition Program, a program for students with Individualized Education Plans, were recently named Old Lyme's citizens of the year for their contributions to the community and internships at Town Hall, local organizations and the school campus. 

"The students have gained vocational skills, practiced invaluable social and communication skills, and been able to create some impressive resumes," the Old Lyme Board of Selectmen wrote in a proclamation presented at Old Lyme's annual town meeting this winter. "Through our work with the young interns, we have gained an appreciation for the dedication and caring of their teachers and job coaches, and a life-changing awareness of the limitless potential of our most exceptional citizens."

The proclamation notes that the school district had once contracted with agencies for vocational experiences and transition services, but about 10 years ago the district moved to offer these services in-house. This step has "meant significant financial savings to the district and created a unique opportunity for our community."

Students within the high school's Life Skills program take academic subjects, as well as life skills classes that cover independent living skills, health and well-being, vocational exploration and employability. Youths within the school’s 18-21 Transition Program, under Allan Honer, learn life skills and vocational and transitional skills.

Staff said the goal is to prepare students for competitive employment.

Lyme-Old Lyme special education teacher Leslie O'Connor said the program began with the instruction of life-skills concepts in the classroom and grew as the district acquired a van that enabled opportunities for students to get out in the community. As the students became of age and vocational training became a greater focus, students began on-campus internships and then branched out with internships at Town Hall.

O'Connor then called local businesses to explore how students could be of value to the businesses and then how the businesses could serve the community in response, said special education and life skills teacher Adrienne Viscio.

Elizabeth Shoudy, transition and school to career coordinator, said key to the students' success after the program is for them to become a fixture in their local community, where the best jobs are for them. If the students start interning in the community when they are younger, the program can provide job coaching and support that will help prepare them for their careers.

On a recent winter morning, Ethan Bushy, a senior in the Life Skills program, carried envelopes from the high school across the snow-covered Lyme-Old Lyme campus to the administrative offices at Center School as part of his campus job.

Bushy was training Lauren Huck, a freshman in the program who is poised to take over the task once Bushy graduates. He also assists with picking up and sorting recyclables at the high school.

"It's a lot of responsibility," Bushy said. "It's a great way to help out."

They were joined by Bilal Malik, a post-secondary student who helps with the recycling program and completed a handicap-accessibility assessment of Town Hall, as well as by Maggie Berger, a student intern who is hoping to become a teacher, instructional assistant Allan Gadbois, and Hillary Parzych, a student teacher from Southern Connecticut State University.

Huck said she enjoys helping with the mail and spending time with her friends.

"I'm learning mostly about the future and being independent," she said.

As one part of the class, the students learn how to make affordable and healthy food options, such as mason jar salads — as well as the occasional treat — that they can then make for themselves at home, said Viscio. 

After returning from carrying the mail, Huck and Bushy began learning how to make funnel cakes, while Malik planted seeds for plants that will grow in the Life Skills classroom. 

Viscio said that in addition to learning specific tasks, the students are also acquiring skills, including social and communication skills, listening comprehension and how to follow directions and complete tasks efficiently.

"This is all about teaching pre-employment and independent living skills," she said.

Parzych said the students have, for example, learned how to use unit pricing at the grocery store to pick the least expensive option. They have also learned to collect and sort recyclables on campus, a big responsibility that they do well.

"It gives them the inner strength to say: 'yes, I can do this,'" Gadbois said about the program.

k.drelich@theday.com

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