Newswise — LAWRENCE — In two years of operation, a University of Kansas project to help schools support young people with disabilities and their families prepare for successful life after school is exceeding goals and helping educators across the country.

The National Technical Assistance Center on Improving Transition to Postsecondary Education and Employment for Students with Disabilities, also known as NTACT, was launched in January 2015. The center was funded as part of a five-year, $12.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services to help educators in all 50 states and 10 U.S. territories better prepare young people with disabilities and their families for postsecondary education and competitive, well-paying careers.

“We’ve seen significant goal attainment in our first two years,” said Mary Morningstar, associate professor of special education and director of KU’s Transition Coalition, a team that focuses on supporting secondary educators. “About 90 percent of teams that have taken part in our trainings have met or gone above and beyond the goals they’ve set in improving their students’ transition to successful life after school.”

KU partners with the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, the University of Oregon, Western Michigan University and TransCen Inc., a Maryland-based company that provides employment services to students with disabilities. KU’s primary role in the project has been to support online and distance learning professional development programs for educators and vocational rehabilitation personnel. Thus far the center has developed a dropout prevention online learning module, webinars and ask-the-expert events, and online resources based on KU-developed, evidence-based practices for helping students make successful transitions. Among the most unique resources is the “transition self-study,” an intensive team-based training in which local practitioner teams learn online and meet in person to discuss how their school can support youths with disabilities to transition and identify how the team can improve transition services. They identify resources available at various levels and develop a plan of action to improve services for students and families to set after-school goals for youths.

In 2016 alone, the self-study trained more than 200 secondary educators from teams across the country. Teams include special and general education teachers, administrators, social workers, guidance counselors, transition coordinators — who often serve as team leaders — and vocational rehabilitation staff, among others. The team members work with KU’s Transition Coalition to learn new practices and continue discussions online even after the official session has ended. One of the next steps will be to create state-level transition coaches who will do the work alongside KU’s Transition Coalition to facilitate more schools to complete the self-studies and better help students make the transition from school, thereby allowing the center to reach more people throughout the country.

The NTACT center offers technical assistance and professional development across three levels: universal, in which they provide online and print materials, resources and trainings to anyone in the country; targeted, in which states reach out to the national center to review state-level laws and documents and develop targeted, short-term technical assistance on topics such as youth employment; and intensive, which offers select states intensive technical assistance. The latter includes trainings such as the Transition Coalition self-study.

Thus far 10 states — Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Delaware, Maryland, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Oregon and West Virginia — have earned the designation. In 2017, five more states are slated to receive intensive TA. Intensive technical-assistance states work in person with the center to make improvements at the policy level, receive technical assistance, review their young adult transition plans and develop plans on how best to develop statewide support and deliveries for school districts to implement changes to their transition plans.

“The intent is that states change and improve their practices and are able to better serve students and families on their own going forward,” Morningstar said.

KU Transition Coalition has also recently developed an intensive, online tool that schools can use to begin implementing changes in two weeks. The Launch, Engage, Reflect and Network, or LERN, allows practitioners to learn through video and online training events how to implement specific evidence-based practices, answer questions about how they can implement them, reflect on current practices and network with others making similar changes.

The national center’s success in the first two years has prompted the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services to contribute more funding for the project, which in turn has allowed KU’s Transition Coalition to expand the self-study and reach more educators.

“Overall the national center has been highly successful in the support we’ve provided, and we’ve been able to support and train more teams than we originally thought would be possible,” Morningstar said.

Locally, KU is entering the second semester of a program designed to help more young people with disabilities attend the university while providing support to them and their families in preparing for adulthood and competitive careers. The Transition to Postsecondary Education for Youth with Intellectual Disabilities Program was funded by a five-year, $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education Office of Postsecondary Education. Housed in KU’s Beach Center on Disability through the Lifespan Institute and the Transition Coalition, the program is working with several Kansas school districts and plans to expand enrollment for Fall 2017. The program has already begun working with more faculty who teach the students in the program, hopes to expand to make housing available in the university’s residence halls for the program’s students and is improving support by collaborating with the Office of First Year Experience and others.

“All of our students have met and exceeded our expectations so far,” Morningstar said. “Every time I’ve met with someone at KU they didn’t even blink and said, ‘Yes, of course we should do this.’ Everyone at all levels has really come to the table to support it.”