Eye on Education

Advanced programs help special needs students learn to be independent adults

Life after high school was hard for Michael Jensen to imagine. His mother, who has been by his side for years, had no idea what was next for her younger son.

Jensen, a 24-year-old Fresno man, has autism, a developmental disorder that affects his ability to communicate and interact with others. While many high school seniors graduate and move on to study at a college or a university, there aren’t many options for young adults with intellectual disabilities.

Community-based programs exist to help disabled students find work or to provide them with daily social activities. But for some families, there is a desire for more — an opportunity for higher education and a path to independent living.

Judy Jensen knew her son, who is high functioning and has average to above-average intelligence but trouble communicating, wanted independence.

“They grow up and they have wants and desires, and I think as parents it’s up to us to help them achieve the most that they could be, like you would any other child,” Judy Jensen said. “They are no different. With my son, he wanted to be independent, and I felt there was no reason he couldn’t be.”

Now, programs that teach independent living skills on college and university campuses are popping up. Thanks to Fresno City College’s TILE program, Michael Jensen learned how to cook, take the bus and work. He is enrolled in classes with a goal of earning his associate’s degree, possibly in computer networking.

Fresno State has a similar program called Wayfinders with a special element — on-campus living, without parents and alongside their peers.

The path to independence

Local county offices of education have adult transition programs that teach daily living skills to high school students with intellectual disabilities, up to age 22.

Fresno City College and Fresno State take those lessons up a notch. The Transition to Independent Living and Education program was created six years ago at Fresno City College. Fresno State’s Wayfinders program opened in 2011.

Both were modeled after a Taft College program, southwest of Bakersfield, called Transition to Independent Living. The programs also rely on Central Valley Regional Center, a nonprofit that helps children and adults with developmental disabilities, for referrals. The idea is to help students with intellectual disabilities become prepared to live independently as they decide whether to go to college or to work.

“I was really, really tired of seeing students with developmental disabilities, or now as we say, intellectual disabilities, leaving the K to 12 environment or an isolated school environment, and just sit at home or wander around the mall and not really have any purpose in their lives,” said Janice Emerzian, district director of the Disabled Students Programs & Services for State Center Community College District.

The district includes Fresno City College, Reedley College, Clovis Community College Center and the Madera and Oakhurst centers. There are about 5,000 students with disabilities districtwide, including 2,300 attending Fresno City, Emerzian said.

The two-year TILE program accepts 20 to 25 students who meet five days a week on campus. Participants work in the college cafeteria in the morning, preparing food in the kitchen or cleaning tables and floors in the front. In classrooms, they are taught life skills, including how to cook for themselves.

On a recent Thursday afternoon, the class met in a home economics room with several stoves and sinks to make simple spaghetti with sauce from a bottle and salad with mushrooms and tomatoes. Students were assigned to work in teams — the sauce team, the noodle team and the salad team — while they were monitored by class aides.

“It’s one big family,” said Kathleen Moroney, program instructor. “They can mentor each other. We give them the tools.”

Student Brian Session, 29, has emerged as a leader in the program, encouraging other students to smile and try their best. He wasn’t always that way.

“I didn’t know what to do and wanted to be alone,” said Session, who attended Diamond Learning Center, a special school for adults with disabilities for two years before enrolling in the TILE program last year. Session hopes to enroll in college classes soon.

Michael Jensen spent his high school career attending an online charter school. He enrolled in his first college class three years ago when classmates encouraged him to try. The students, who are not special needs, were members of Circle K, a campus club created by TILE students to raise money for charity. The group earned the campus club of the year award in May.

“It gave him confidence to pursue his dream to have a career and a life outside of what special needs does,” said Judy Jensen. “This allows them to expand and to feel like they are contributing to the community.

Finding their way

Fresno State’s two-year Wayfinders program has students living on campus at the Palazzo at Campus Pointe apartments with roommates.

There, Fresno State students hired as academic, vocational, living and transitional coaches and program staff help the Wayfinders students learn daily living skills as they juggle jobs in the community and classes on campus.

The students work on things as simple as time management — like getting up on time — to meal preparation, budgeting and how to use the public bus system to get to and from work, said Shail Lopez-Ortiz, executive director for Wayfinders.

The program accepts about 20 students from across the state every year. The goal is to eventually have 40 enrolled, Lopez-Ortiz said.

Drew Paveza, 22, of Morgan Hill dreamed of living independently and finding a job. He would have been in a career-prep program if he hadn’t found Wayfinders two years ago.

“I came to the Wayfinders program because I wanted to learn how to get a job, be independent and participate in activities,” said Paveza, who has autism.

During the first year, students learn job skills on campus by helping out in the bookstore, farmers market, bowling alley, the horse barn and department offices. Once they develop their skills, they can be matched up with jobs that interest them in the community, said Ryan Wilson, Wayfinders’ transition and activities coordinator.

Paveza has worked for Grocery Outlet. He now has a job at REI at River Park organizing shoe boxes, helping to close up shop and more. Fellow student Christina Rosa, 30, of Fresno works at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center transporting patients to and from appointments.

She can’t contain her excitement when talking about living on campus.

“I like this program because it makes me independent, (by) living here alone without my mom,” Rosa said. “You do everything by yourself, and you have activities — like we do sports. We do swimming, (go to the) gym. Right now living alone, I can cook. I say to my mom, ‘Stop it, I can do it.’ It makes me very happy.”

Fresno City College TILE Program

Disabled, Students, Programs & Services

1101 E. University Ave., Fresno

(559) 442-8237


Fresno State Wayfinders Program

Kremen Education Building, Room 151

5005 N. Maple Ave., Fresno

(559) 278-0390


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