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Creating PATHSS to success

In a unique partnership between Carolina and the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, PATHSS is designed to help high school students with intellectual and developmental disabilities prepare for life after high school.

Brian O'Donnell walks down the library stacks.
CHCCS high school student Brian O'Donnell works in the stacks at Davis Library.

On June 1, the first two graduates of the innovative PATHSS program were recognized on the Carolina campus. In a unique partnership between UNC-Chapel Hill and the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, PATHSS is designed to help high school students with intellectual and developmental disabilities prepare for life after high school.

Weekday mornings, the students head to a small meeting room in Manning Hall where they meet with the program facilitator before checking their email and mapping out the day’s activities. Their days begin with a familiar routine.

Brian O’Donnell methodically graphs the weather forecast on the board and Hannah Barlow adds any updated or missed information for the week. Jake Gerber completes his bank deposit form and selects the afternoon’s bus schedule, while Brittany Newby gets down to business scheduling EZ Rider for her after-school events or Special Olympics practices.

Shortly after 9 a.m., the students and their job coaches head to their campus job sites for their morning externships. They take on a variety of tasks, from sorting books by call number to be re-shelved in Davis Library, to setting up for seminars and sorting and delivering mail in Geological Sciences, to clearing tables and stocking condiments in one of the Carolina Dining Services facilities. At noon, they regroup for lunch and a little down time.

Afternoons focus on hands-on learning, either in a classroom or a community setting that’s affiliated with a UNC program or department. Throughout their busy days, the students are learning both practical job skills and life lessons, all the while connecting what they learn with what is meaningful to them and will help them become independent.

While these four students spend much of their weekdays on campus, they aren’t Carolina students. They are high school students from Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools who are part of a groundbreaking program called PATHSS – Project Achieve for Transitioning High School Students. PATHSS is a program designed for high school students, ages 18 to 22, with intellectual and developmental disabilities who are in their final two years of high school and are about to make the transition from student life to adulthood.

“The program is a transition immersion for students with disabilities, a classroom within the community,” said Susan Lombardo, transition facilitator with the school system. PATHSS evolved from the recognition that these students weren’t adequately prepared for life after high school, she said, so parents, school administrators and community members came together to create a workable solution in the face of shrinking resources.

Under federal law, students with certain disabilities are allowed to remain in high school until age 22, but too often they leave high school without the life skills they need to function in the broader community. Post-secondary programs for students with disabilities exist in some community colleges and universities, but these programs are not geared for high school students. After exploring other transition programs, PATHSS was developed to go beyond the typical classroom experience to help the students develop skills for independent living.

With an emphasis on marketable job skills, PATHSS blends rigorous vocational training with classroom and community-based instruction. “We know that individuals with disabilities who are self-determined are more likely to achieve successful adult outcomes,” Lombardo explained. “Through PATHSS, our externs develop behaviors that are goal-directed and self-regulated. They make things happen in their lives.”

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