By Beth Lawrence

Jackson County Schools is doing what it takes to guarantee students from pre-K to Early College with an Exceptional Child diagnosis have access to the same opportunities as other students.

To ensure that those students have what they need, the school system has agreements with two local groups intended to meet the educational and post-graduation needs of students with an EC, or exceptional child designation.

The agreements were reviewed and approved at July’s Board of Education meeting.

For pre-K students, educators start before students ever set foot in hallways of Jackson County Schools.

The board renewed a standing agreement between the county and Mountain Projects Head Start designed to help students with disabilities and educational challenges make a smooth transition to public school.

“Headstart is a traditional pre-K program for students who are 3, 4, and 5 years old, (and) it does help a child with a disability to have early intervention,” said Kelly Doppke director of student support services.

The program consists of several parts.

The first is a plan to identify and refer students who might face educational challenges for assessment.

If a student with a particular need is identified at the preschool level, Jackson County Schools will provide an evaluation.

The two entities will then reach out to parents to explain the child’s rights and policy procedures under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

“IDEA requires local school districts to provide a free and appropriate education to all students with disabilities from age 3-21. A team of staff and parents determine student (needs),” Doppke said.

The two agencies will share the results of the assessment and work with parents to see that an Individual Education Plan is in place when the child begins kindergarten.

In order to prepare the child for kindergarten, Jackson County Schools will provide speech therapy, special education services, physical and occupational therapy.

The child’s progress will be monitored and reviewed at intervals to meet the changing needs of the student.

“Students are screened for developmental milestones annually,” Doppke said.

Head Start has three locations in Jackson County: Fairview A, Fairview B and Kneedler Child Development Center at Western Carolina University.

Parents with children in private pre-K programs who suspect that their child may need additional help can reach out directly to Jackson County Public Schools preschool representative at 586-2311 or preschool Coordinator Petra Giles at 586-2819.

For EC designated students on the other end of their public school career, Jackson County School is working with Webster Enterprises to offer pre-employment transition services for students at Smoky Mountain High School, Jackson County School of Alternatives, Blue Ridge Early College and Jackson County Early College.

“Jackson County Public Schools has approximately 150 students who could benefit from these services,” Doppke said. “This includes students with IEPs, 504 plans and other mental health diagnoses.”

These programs are beneficial to older students with developmental delays and educational challenges because they are an underserved population when it comes to finding and retaining employment.

“Adults with disabilities have a higher unemployment rate. Providing pre-employment training and transition services will allow our graduates to be prepared for entering the workforce,” Doppke said. “The ultimate goal would be for all students to leave high school employed and earning a fair wage.”

Webster Enterprises will provide transition specialists, or coaches, who will help students between the ages of 14 and 21 in several areas.

Students entering the program would be evaluated to find the best placement and career opportunities.

The specialists would be responsible for providing job exploration opportunities, workplace readiness training, work-based learning, counseling for transitioning to the work force or post-secondary education and teaching students how to self-advocate.

Specialists would complete pre-employment surveys, vocational assessments and assign each student to a job that would meet his or her ability and interests.

They will work closely with the student’s family and teachers to determine the best fit for each person.

Throughout the program the consultants will set goals and monitor each person’s progress.

Both Webster and the school system will work with the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation and VAYA Health to assist students and families with applications for post-graduation services.

Students would be supervised at school and on jobsites, have their contact hours documented and have their performance evaluated.

The consultants would teach students the importance of complying work and school polices like safety and dress code and encourage them to follow those guidelines.

The program would work to identify and coordinate vocational and industry tours, job shadowing and training for jobs in local businesses based on the skills and needs of students in the program.