By LeAnn R. Ralph
COLFAX — If you are a student with a disability, how are you going to get to school or work, especially in a rural area?
This was the topic of discussion during a “community conversation” on increasing opportunities for employment for youth with disabilities held virtually by participants from the Colfax, Menomonie and Chippewa Falls school districts on February 4 as part of a requirement for receiving Transition Readiness Grant funding.
The Transition Readiness Grant program is intended to help Wisconsin students who have disabilities to transition to work and post-secondary education after high school.
The grant program started in 2019, and in the first year, received about 130 requests for $9 million, according to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction’s website.
The Colfax school district received a grant award of $45,100, while the Chippewa Falls school district received $63,150 and the Menomonie school district received $40,250.
The Colfax school district currently has two students employed at Mayo-Eau Claire and plans to use the grant funding for a handicapped accessible van. Another $1,000 of the grant funding will be used for staff development, while $600 will be used for professional development and $500 was used for the virtual community conversation
The Menomonie school district will use part of the grant money to help students with disabilities to obtain their driver’s licenses, to provide drivers to help them get to work and for an online job coaching training class for paraprofessionals in the school district.
The Chippewa Falls school district also will use the funds to reduce barriers to obtaining a driver’s license and for transportation to work sites so students can have “real life” experiences in the community.
Participants in the event went into “break out” sessions to discuss three questions and then reported on what they had discussed to the entire group.
The three questions included “What are the barriers to transportation?” “How can transportation options be improved?” and “How can we make some of it happen?/How can the community help?”
Here is a summary of the answers.
Students with disabilities need transportation for school-to-school, school-to-work or school-to-community transitions.
Public transportation has certain limitations.
For the Colfax school district, there is no public transportation.
In a rural community, distance to school or work can be a barrier, especially if parents are not available to drive their students when their students must be at school or at work.
In a rural area, students cannot walk many miles to reach school or work.
Ride services are available in some places, such as Handi-Lift or county transit, but the money for the school district to pay for such services can also be a barrier.
Even when there are public and private options for transportation, safety can be an issue for younger students or more vulnerable students.
Even with money to help pay for driver’s education, families can still struggle to find the time to provide the needed extra drive time or to have a vehicle available when the student is available for drive time.
Students might also be able to get their driver’s license, but then when it comes time to go to work or to school, there is no family vehicle available for use. The family might not also be able to afford to buy another vehicle for the student, or the family vehicle is available at times that are not the times when the employer needs the student to be at work.
Another barrier is students not feeling confident using public transportation when it is available.
School districts do everything they can to make sure students get to a job or to school, but when the student graduates from high school, then there is no longer any school district support available.
How to improve?
How can transportation options be improved?
Several programs are available that can help with making repairs to vehicles if vehicle repair is a barrier to the student going to school or to work.
Driver’s education schools can help students get their driver’s licenses by expanding the time of day when class or drive time is available, such as options for behind-the-wheel training at 5:30 a.m. or 9 p.m.
More funding could be available for school districts to help with transportation.
Additional money also could be available to help family members provide transportation, such as payment for mileage.
Building connections with churches and other groups could also help with transportation.
Helping school districts to purchase vans or small buses to transport students and helping districts to have people certified to drive the vans or buses would be helpful as well.
Educating the families on the resources that are available can remove barriers to transportation, because if the families do not know about the resources, they cannot access those resources.
Partnerships could also be developed among school districts for providing transportation to school or work.
Employers could also help, and some employers do provide transportation to their work sites.
Finding ways to get businesses into the conversation about transporting people with disabilities to work also would be helpful.
Developing mentorship programs at the work site might be a way to find transportation since co-workers sometimes will car pool with each other to get to and from work.
Parents could also work together on ride sharing.
School districts should also arrange a time to speak with state senators and representatives about the barrier transportation represents for students with disabilities and the need for an increase in state funding to help school districts.
How can some of the barriers to transportation be removed and how can the community help with transportation?
Participants in the event noted that simply having the ability to get to work or school will greatly improve a student’s chance for success.
Setting up mechanisms to educate students and families about the options for transportation would be one way to help. If all of the students and families have the same information, then they are at the same starting point for being able to access services.
The Chippewa Falls school district, for example, has a family resource guide, although the guide is 40 pages long, and it could be overwhelming for parents who are short on time to sift through all of the information.
Everyone involved could also be encouraged to be more creative at solving problems.
One example was a student who wanted to cancel a driver’s education drive time session because he or she had to get to work. The instructor changed the drive time, and then the session ended at the student’s place of employment.
Employers could work on organizing a ride share program with other employees who would be willing to drive.
University students could also serve as mentors to help other students solve transportation issues.
Technical colleges, such as Chippewa Valley Technical College in Eau Claire or Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College in New Richmond, may have funds for transportation that could help students.
More meetings could also be scheduled in communities, perhaps on a quarterly basis, to network and brainstorm ideas to solve transportation issues.
Parents could be encouraged to reach out more to family, friends and community. Families trust school districts to safely transport their students, but if they developed relationships with others, it might be helpful in solving transportation problems.
More meetings also could be scheduled with the Rotary Club, the Chamber of Commerce, church groups and legislators to brainstorm ideas for solving transportation issues.
Employers who would hire students after they graduate from technical school or some other certification program might also be willing to sponsor transportation in some way.