Harper College program teaches professional skills to students with mild intellectual disabilities


When Eric Hiller graduated from high school, his mother wanted to find him the best program. She knew that Eric, who has autism, would struggle in a traditional academic setting, benefiting most from a program focused on so-called soft skills.

When she heard about the Career Skills Institute (CSI) at Harper College, she knew Eric would be a perfect fit for her.

“Every time Eric starts something new, there is a [resistance]”Said Agatha Donaldson-Hiller of Elgin.” Her first words are, “I can’t do it” and my response was, “How do you know you can’t do it until you try? “

CSI, which will be celebrating its 10th anniversary next fall, is a program for those who were in special education in high school and could not take traditional college classes, said Linda Hoeck, former program coordinator, who recently took up her post. retirement. Graduates do not earn a degree but, after completing a two-year program with a defined course of study, receive a portfolio assessment and certificate of completion, which shares their academic and professional skills and any support they might need. For example, this may indicate that a graduate can work on an assembly line if they have a checklist or video template.

Young adult students in the program have a range of diagnoses, Hoeck said, including general mental impairment, Down syndrome, and traumatic brain injury. A few have health problems or, like Eric, have autism.

Because Harper was a new school, the first few days at the institute were tough, said Eric, 24. He did know a classmate, however, which made the transition a bit easier.

Eventually, he grew up enjoying attending CSI. He liked a tongue twister game, where he was instructed to say a sentence faster and faster, and he saw how CSI helped him in his work. Eric has been working as a clerk at Ace Hardware in Bartlett since 2015. He categorizes and organizes merchandise, and helps customers by directing them to coworkers who can best help them.

CSI “taught me that it is important to be on time, to listen, to ask for help, to help others, to follow the rules and to get along with colleagues”, did he declare.

The institute also teaches students about technology, an area that was strengthened last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Hoeck said the switch to virtual learning for fall 2020, which has turned into a hybrid virtual / in-person approach, was difficult for some ICS students, who may not be familiar with the technology. or don’t like to disrupt the routine.

To ease the transition, Hoeck visited each of his students’ homes with a packet of information to explain the change. She told the students that they would still see each other, but that it would be online through Webex.

With the change, students learned the importance of responding to emails, completing homework by email, and asking for help if they couldn’t log into the system.

Hoeck, who retired on September 29, founded the Career Skills Institute in the fall of 2012 at the behest of Harper College and its then president, Dr. Ken Ender. She had also recently retired from the Northwest Suburban Special Education Organization (NSSEO) in Mount Prospect, a special education cooperative. She had been the Autism Coordinator at NSSEO, meaning she knew many autistic students – and their parents. In Illinois, people with autism can attend public school until the age of 22, but it can be difficult to find a program for them.

“When some of the parents called Harper’s president to say, ‘What can we do? “He wanted someone who knew those parents to participate,” Hoeck said.

Over the years, the program has changed a bit. In addition to the shift to tech skills work, students now get a long lunch break to help them become more involved on campus. There are social activities to encourage them to explore Harper and help students get to know each other.

“The other part that we’ve really worked on and formalized is the job application process,” Hoeck said. “Internships are something that has really grown here,” and students who apply for jobs at Harper go through the same application process as anyone else. They learn how to upload their resumes, interview, use email, and respond to messages.

“It has been a very important element for us,” she said. “It helped them apply for real jobs in the community.”

Eric has learned a plethora of skills at CSI, and Agatha said she has seen one of the most surprising changes this summer. His mom said Eric’s biggest struggle was communication. During Eric’s CSI graduation, she watched him sit down with one of his teachers and have a conversation.

“I just sat in awe. I don’t understand [fluid conversation] Eric, she said. That’s what I want from him. It is difficult to get him to verbalize. I want it so much for him. “

To learn more about the Career Skills Institute, visit the program home page or contact Sharon Basten, Program Coordinator, at (847) 925-2076 or [email protected]


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