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Cooperative Helps Students with Disabilities Greet Life Head-On

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A long and fruitful education alliance between EASTCONN and The Woodstock Academy has made it possible for northeastern Connecticut high school students with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities to develop the skills and confidence they need to navigate the world after graduation.

 The Woodstock Academy Cooperative program (WAC), which has been run by EASTCONN for more than 25 years, is housed on The Woodstock Academy’s beautiful, wooded campus in Woodstock, Conn. The WAC program enrolls nine high school students with special needs, ages 14-18, from Brooklyn, Pomfret, Woodstock and Eastford. 

Woodstock Academy staff and students help WAC students manage a full school day, as they attend smaller EASTCONN classes, gain vocational and/or job-skills training, and then head either to regular, mainstream Woodstock Academy classes with their non-disabled peers, or to their paid, on-campus jobs. 

 “By attending mainstream Woodstock Academy classes, our students experience a wider range of course materials, which is important, since we want our students to feel connected to their peers and to learn how to interact in their communities,” said Kim Fitzner, who coordinates WAC for EASTCONN. 

The Woodstock Academy is a prestigious private high school that enrolls public high school students from surrounding towns. 

“In effect, our WAC students are on a mini-college campus, where they need to problem-solve, manage their time, develop self-confidence and learn how to self-advocate,” Fitzner said. 

“The Academy prides itself on partnering with many local institutions, like EASTCONN, to better prepare all of our students for life after high school,” said Chris Sandford, Head of The Woodstock Academy. “We are happy to strengthen and grow our relationship with EASTCONN ... Our welcoming and supportive environment makes all students, no matter their ability, gender, or place of
origin, feel welcomed and a part of a larger community.”

“What we provide through the WAC program is bigger than just learning job skills,” Fitzner said. “Our students have a voice and a choice in what they choose to pursue, both academically and vocationally. We want them to focus on self-determination, independence and transition skills like employment and daily living.”

“This program has been great for Emily and our whole family,” said Denise Skellett, a parent whose daughter, Emily, attends the WAC program. “It really has focused on Emily’s strengths and she has blossomed. With support [from WAC staff], I’ve been encouraged to let Emily be more independent and she’s thriving. She’s proud of her accomplishments and so are we! She participates in unified classes and sports now. Trying new things was always a little scary for her, so this program has been great.”

 “One exciting aspect of the WAC program is that families who had been thinking they had to plan everything for their children for the rest of their lives are able to make a mental shift away from that expectation,” said EASTCONN Director of Special Services Eric Protulis, who oversees the special education group.    

“They begin to see how much their children can do for themselves, and can see their sense of pride and self-confidence increase dramatically. That’s our goal: To help students build lifelong skills that will help them find jobs, be independent and live happy lives in their own communities.” 

WAC students can choose to work in a variety of on-campus jobs. Emily Skellett described how she felt about the WAC program and her cafeteria job. “I love it!” she exclaimed with a big smile. “I like my co-workers and working with people.”

Students also connect with their Woodstock Academy peers through unified music/chorus, field trips and sports programs.

“The number of Academy peer mentors who volunteer in our unified programs is inspiring,” said Fitzner. “Every year, about 60 mentors join us for soccer, basketball, Unified Club, track and kickball. It’s a wonderful, collaborative program. Everyone benefits.” 

“With this partnership, we have seen an increase of student-to-student partnerships through many different venues,” said Sandford. “The Academy is a unique, independent school, which has the curricular and programmatic flexibility to provide unique experiences to students.”

 “This Cooperative education program is a service we are proud to provide to our EASTCONN-region towns, as we work in partnership with The Woodstock Academy,” said Protulis. “We are providing an affordable, high-quality program in a region that doesn’t have a lot of resources for students with more significant disabilities.” 

To learn more, contact Kim Fitzner at kfitzner@eastconn.org, or Eric Protulis at eprotulis@eastconn.org