TOP teaches adults with special needs how to adult

Shining light onto a program not many know exists at Colton High School

Pepper Bough News

By Erin Dallatorre, Colton High School - CA

On October 8th, 2021, students in Colton High’s TOP program went on their weekly city bus ride down Valley Boulevard. Their goal: ordering takeout for lunch. 

All the students had their own money and freedom to buy and choose whatever they wanted to eat at a number of restaurants on the major city street, including Subway, Amapola, Del Taco, and McDonald’s.

Ordering takeout is not exactly something most consider worthy of a field trip. For students in TOP, it is an essential learning activity. 

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month. Giving TOP the spotlight it deserves is a great way to celebrate and spread awareness about what this program does, not just for its students, but for the Colton community. 

Supporting independence

TOP is Colton Joint Unified School District’s Transition Opportunity Program. It is offered to adult students with severe to moderate cognitive special needs to support their independent living after they leave high school.  

“TOP has three focuses,” said Lindsey Scarborough, one of the program’s teachers. “Independent living, community [building], and vocational [skills]. The program prepares students for life after the structured school setting and teaches them skills to be as independent as they possibly can.”

TOP students wait at the bus stop for the city bus on their life skills field trip. (Erin Dallatorre)

TOP teaches these things by encouraging students to perform home activities and tasks that involve leaving campus. Students learn to do household chores, like folding and sorting laundry, as well as more challenging skills, such as going to Stater Bros. to buy ingredients for pancakes  before being taught how to prepare and cook pancakes.

The lessons taught can be compared to those taught in a high school Home Economics class. 

Going out and doing errands like this helps students learn appropriate ways to act and respond—even professionally at times—during everyday situations most neurotypical individuals take for granted.

More than life skills

The students in TOP have severe to moderate cognitive disabilities, requiring a different curriculum than general education students. Due to their specific needs, both curricular and physical, they are on a special day schedule.

Before graduating into the four-year TOP program, the students still experience all their high school milestones in their senior year, like Prom and Graduation.

In addition to life skills, students in TOP continue working towards their high school Certificate of Completion by the age of 22. This is an essential goal for the program as a whole.

Certificates of Completion are equal to high school diplomas for special education students.

Earning a Certificate of Completion means the students have satisfied the requirements to finish school, and can put all they learned in TOP to use. 

‘A person with a disability’

Other than providing students’ education, TOP is needed to help those with disabilities have opportunities to fit into society. 

TOP’s support of students’ future endeavors means giving them a chance to work as best they can to meet both the spoken and unspoken expectations set around them. 

“[We] want our students to have a sense of belonging within their community,” Ashton Reynosa, TOP instructor, shared. “On the other side of that, we also help the community with understanding the special needs population by having a presence in the community.”

I want people to see the students as not disabled persons, but as persons with a disability. Person first.”

— Robert Pearson, Director of Pupil Personnel Services

Robert Pearson, director of Pupil Personnel Services at Colton Joint Unified School District, added, “I want people to see the students as not disabled persons, but as persons with a disability. Person first.”

TOP also supports public awareness of adults with special needs. Bringing awareness helps grow a new sense of understanding for everyone. 

The program looks to put an end to the myth that those with disabilities are different from “normal” people. TOP is proudly trying to establish a culture of equality in Colton.

Individuals with disabilities are simply trying to navigate life the same as everyone else.

A passion for growth and learning

Lindsey Scarborough is one of the three teachers in the TOP program. This is her first year with the program, and loves the ways in which it challenges and teaches her. 

“As a teacher, you’re always learning with your students. So it helps me grow as an educator learning how to help different students because they all have individual needs.”

All of the teachers in the program—Scarborough, Reynosa, and Mr. Robert Cerny—feel that working with this population of students has helped them learn and grow tremendously.

Everytime someone involved in this program learns something new it adds to the message and reaches across Colton spreading Special Ed support and awareness. 

TOP students look at their field trip destination on Valley Blvd. in Colton, and try to determine which restaurant to choose. (Erin Dallatorre)

TOP student Trevon Arnold explains that, “If you don’t learn independence, where are you gonna be? You’re gonna be stuck in a pit. But if you learn independence you’re gonna be out of that pit, and then you’re gonna be in a higher level and more elevated to learn more about it.”

Both students and teachers love learning from and teaching each other. 

The people involved with the program have a passion for it no matter what role they play. 

Dressing the community

Not only does TOP offer a great educational program, it also offers to donate clothes in a store-like atmosphere called TOP Closet. 

The TOP students collect all lost and found clothing, plus donated articles, from the district and practice their laundry skills by cleaning them and getting them ready to distribute to individuals and families in need. 

Once cleaned, all the clothes are hung and ready to wear. The TOP Closet is located in room 558 on the Colton High campus. It is open on the fourth Thursday of each month.

As the Closet became popular, another location was opened at Ruth O. Harris Middle School called Community Closet West. 

Notifications as to the availability of TOP Closet and the Community Closet West are sent to families via Q Communicator.

An indelible mark

In class, the TOP students are lively and engaged. They are interested in everything, especially new and novel items, like video cameras.

If you learn independence you’re gonna be out of that pit, and then you’re gonna be in a higher level and more elevated to learn more about it.”

— Trevon Arnold, TOP student

The Pepper Bough’s video camera was a popular topic. Two students were intrigued about the handheld device. They wanted to hold it. 

One of them said, “I have a camera like that. When I take pictures, the film comes out, and when I shake it, the picture shows up.” 

Other students in Ms. Reynosa’s class were excited about the Dodgers chances in the MLB playoffs. As part of a class news discussion activity, they cheered on the baseball team while watching a local news clip.

To spend time in the TOP classroom is to be overwhelmed with the excitement and energy of a group of young men and women learning what it means to be an adult. The opportunity afforded them by this program is inspiring. TOP is a hidden gem at Colton High, providing the type of education that seldom gets recognized, but leaves an indelible mark.

This story was originally published on The Pepper Bough on October 14, 2021.