Kathy Farley and Mary Kennedy, Special Education Teachers

For parents of children with cognitive disabilities, school is a welcome respite where their children are cared for and nurtured.

But for many of these parents, the end of high school is the wake-up call to a harsh reality: Suddenly their children have to learn to function in the real world, or the parents will have to take care of them forever.

That’s why 11 years ago special education teachers Kathy Farley and Mary Kennedy worked with their administrator, Dr. Jean Prindiville, to start the Transitions program in Highland Park. The program teaches students basic life skills such as how to cross the street, ride the bus, cook a meal and use a cell phone―all skills they will need to lead a more independent life.

Today, the three-year program has centers in Highland Park and Glenview, serving students ages 18 to 22. The program is run by the North Shore Special Education District, which is funded by 18 school districts.

Kathy and Mary say a large focus of the program is teaching students how to make choices and speak up for themselves. “So much of our students’ pasts were determined for them,” says Mary. “We make sure we always ask them: ‘What do you want to do?’ ”

Teachers take students to Dominick’s to practice shopping or to Starbucks to work on social skills.

Kathy says she’s proud of her students, many of whom have gone on to get jobs. “When they grasp what you’re teaching them, it’s really rewarding,” she says. “They are wonderful spirits.”

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