Special-needs school: Learning lessons of life
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Anthony McDougal, 22, isn't necessarily a slow learner. He admits, however, that he was lazy.

Even after enrolling at the Granite School District's Hilda B. Jones Center, for special-education students who attended high school but need help transitioning into adult life, McDougal demonstrated little follow-through.

"The first job they helped me get, I just stopped showing up," McDougal said of the dishwashing position the center's staff helped him secure at University Hospital.

It wasn't until he contributed $200 toward the family rent that the pride of independence dawned on him. "It made me feel like an adult, whereas before I just acted like a child," he said.

For all the stories of success, though, there are heartbreaking ones. Sharon Neilson of Kearns has seen one of her special-needs sons graduate through special-education programs, but has less hope for son Andrew, an 18-year-old wheelchair user who doesn't speak. He attends the Granite District's Hartvigsen School for special-education students.

"It's been a long, hard thing to figure out how they could even help my son," Neilson said. "It's very difficult when you're the only one in the family of graduation age who doesn't send out a notice."

Few educational challenges come in more varieties than special education. More than half of Utah's special-education students have learning disabilities, said Jennie Gibson, associate director of the Utah Parents Center in Salt Lake City, which helps parents navigate the educational system for their children with special needs. The vast majority of special-education students graduate high school, but those with significant problems in need of transition skills can extend their education up to the age of 22 in such schools as the Hilda B. Jones Center.

From Down syndrome and autism to immature thinkers and those who struggle with self-management, nervous conditions or brain injuries suffered early in life, special-education teachers tackle them all.

But those are just labels, not necessarily indicators of individual skills. Sometimes the best approach is to push students slowly toward the deeper end of life situations to learn where they'll sink or swim, said Stephanie Hullinger, a certified teacher at the center.

"In order to serve them, first you must know them," Hullinger said.

The center awarded diplomas last week to 22 graduates, including McDougal, who hopes to secure a studio apartment near his job at the Joseph Smith Memorial Building. He may follow the beat of his own drum by one day studying paranormal activity at the university level, he said.

The center is big on situations that take students outside the classroom so they may learn to navigate bus schedules, apartment leases and budgeting a restaurant meal, as well as the best ways to thwart strangers who would take advantage of them.

Achievements such as earning a driver permit take on great significance. Some center graduates have moved on to such jobs as horse and pet groomers, bakers, day care workers and library and museum employees.

Once students demonstrate a good-faith effort to meet goals set by a team of teachers, they may graduate in as little as one year, or stay a full four.

The number of special-education students in Utah has remained steady in recent years, between 53,000 and 55,000, with a 73 percent graduation rate last year that missed the state's goal by a mere percentage point.

As with all Utah schools, delivering quality education with limited funds and staff is a challenge. Hullinger said many staff members at the center work without benefits, but love the atmosphere.

"It's a big job. It's a great job. It's low-pay, but we have teachers who come back year after year," she said.

bfulton@sltrib.com