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Community Transitions program begins learning in new building

On a typical Wednesday morning earlier this month, the Community Transitions classroom didn’t seem too different at first glance. Students were typing away on their iPads, working with paraeducators, and playing chess. Many of them were eagerly anticipating going to their part-time job at Grocery Outlet or Mt. Baker Lanes later that day.

But January brought a major, and positive, shakeup to Ferndale School District’s Community Transitions program. For the first time ever, this group of about 30 students and the staff who work with them are in their own building instead of in the high school. Being separate from FHS was an important move for these students, who are no longer on a high school schedule.

“It can be kind of difficult for students to separate their high school experience from their Community Transitions experience if they’ve only moved down the hallway,” said Community Transitions teacher Grant Driver. “We want them to feel comfortable at school, but also to feel challenged to try new settings and new things.”

“We don’t have to worry about a school bell ringing, we’re not on any of the high school’s time limits,” added paraeducator Addison Perrin. “Now we have our own little space where we can really concentrate.”

Mitch Morrison, a Community Transitions teacher, emphasized that the new space makes the transition to adulthood easier for the program’s students.

“Having Community Transitions embedded in the community is crucial to the success of the program, as it allows (students) to begin the process of seeing themselves as citizens and community members rather than just as students on a school campus,” he said. “They make real-time decisions and staff support them as they navigate the consequences of those choices.”

Last year, the school district purchased a small building next to Pioneer Park, formerly used by the American Legion. After some refurbishment, Community Transitions moved into the space in early January.

Community Transitions provides education for Ferndale’s 18-21 year old students transitioning from high school to adult life. One major piece of the program is that students work a part-time job at a local company, and the new building’s proximity to downtown and bus routes helps the students easily access those jobs. Students also have more opportunities to learn how to ride the bus.

“We’re close to a lot of different places that we weren’t close to before,” said Perrin.

“I like the new building, it’s near my job (at Grocery Outlet),” added Abdiel Ortiz, a student in the program.

Driver said the district is setting up a kitchen space in the new building, so students can learn to cook their own meals. He also has plans to develop a community resource section of the building, where adults with disabilities, or parents of children with disabilities, from throughout the area can ask questions and get connected with local nonprofit groups and agencies. It would be open to everyone, not just Ferndale students.

“If you have questions, we can be that bridge to point you in the right direction,” Driver said. “We want to be a resource to everybody.”

Driver said the Community Transitions students are enjoying their new classroom.

“I think that they’re loving it,” he said. “They’re really appreciative for the opportunity to make it their own space.”

“It’s more spacious, that’s what I like about it,” said student Joseph Santangelo.

When the American Legion sold the building to Ferndale School District last year, the majority of the profits – nearly $245,000 – were donated to the Ferndale Public Schools Foundation. That money will go towards creating college scholarships for students with family members who have served or are currently serving in the military.

Driver praised the organization for being easy to work with while the building transitioned to its new use.

“They were amazing, they sold the building to us at a really reasonable price,” he said. “Props to the American Legion, they really made this possible.”

Driver also gave a shout out to RAM Construction, who are currently making upgrades to the building’s kitchen and bathrooms. Instead of making Ferndale wait, the company prioritized this project, Driver said. He also thanked the district maintenance team, who spent much of winter break painting and making upgrades to the building so it could be ready for students in early January.

“They stepped up big time,” Driver said of the Ferndale maintenance crew.

Anya Milton, whose daughter Elka is in Community Transitions, is thrilled that the school district invested in an independent space for the program.

“For Community Transitions to have their own building separate from the high school is an important step in validating the lived experience for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities,” she said. “They need a more adult experience, and this is what this space will provide.”