Could Your Schools Use Community Conversations To Spark Fresh Ideas for Improving Transition for Youth with Disabilities?
By Michele Schutz
Collaboration is important for youth with disabilities to transition from school to adulthood. Research and best practices in transition have long highlighted the need for individuals and groups to work together. Partnerships both within and outside of schools are necessary for supporting transition. Within schools, special educators work alongside general educators, career and technical educators, guidance counselors, related service providers, and others to support students in planning for the future. Additionally, partnerships may involve employers, colleges and universities, disability provider agencies, families, volunteer or faith organizations, and others to ensure that students have opportunities and supports after graduation.
Yet, teachers often struggle to bring together the individuals and organizations in their local communities for many reasons. Special educators may feel alone in preparing youth for adulthood and unsure of who else can help them or how to reach out. They may see a need for new ideas to prepare their students for adulthood but feel overwhelmed by large caseloads and teaching responsibilities. They also may have limited resources or time.
A community conversation event is a practical and fun strategy for school districts to bring a community together, gain fresh perspectives, and find solutions to local challenges in transition. Adapted from Brown and Issacs’ (2005) World Café model, a community conversation is an approach for identifying and gathering many different local stakeholders in an organized way to find a solution to an important problem. In this case, community conversations can focus on the needs of youth with disabilities related to future employment, education, independent living, and community participation. A local planning team of school staff and others invites many different types of community members to attend a community conversation event. These attendees can include people often involved in discussions about disability, such as teachers and school staff, disability service providers, and family members. However, these events are more effective when they also involve those who are, perhaps, without knowledge about disability but understand their community well and have connections to others. For example, employers, community leaders, or faith communities may know of opportunities for youth with disabilities to participate in their communities or know contacts who can help.
During a two-hour event, 30 to 60 attendees participate in three rounds of small-group discussions. For each round, attendees discuss one question and identify resources, ideas, and personal connections that could improve transitions for students with disabilities in their area. For example, they may speak to: What could we do to better prepare students for employment while they are still in school? Attendees switch tables between each round of conversation and continue their discussions with a new mix of individuals. The event ends with a whole-group discussion of the best ideas heard during the conversation and how to move forward. Detailed notes are taken during each round to record every idea discussed. As a result, school staff may hear viewpoints they had not considered, find new ways to approach transition challenges they face, and expand their networks to include people they may not have known before.
School districts are in a good position to host a community conversation. As a part of their jobs, teachers regularly form planning teams, involve people with disabilities, and create a welcoming atmosphere for working together. All of these tasks are needed to plan and host a strong event. Indeed, many studies have described successful events hosted by both rural and urban schools for transitioning students with all different types of disabilities. Finally, special educators and other school staff have shared very positive experiences hosting community conversations.
While providing support to school districts across our state related to preparing students to transition to the future, our team at Transition Tennessee has guided many schools in hosting community conversations. This work has shown several ways in which schools have benefitted from such an approach. Community conversations build upon an individual community’s unique culture, values, and available resources to produce hundreds of new ideas and make meaningful change. Districts can use the data they collect to identify important training and support needs for their staff and students. In addition, according to surveys given at the end of events, attendees have said – time and time again – that they:
- Think the event was a good investment of their time.
- Learned new information about their community.
- Met new people in the community.
- Developed ideas for improving transition outcomes.
We have recently taken new steps to share the resources and materials we have developed for community conversations and the lessons learned from supporting districts across Tennessee in hosting these events. We just published an article for teachers on holding community conversation events that focus on transition. This article carefully describes all of the steps needed for planning a community conversation, carrying out the event, and using information collected from the event to improve the outcomes of students with disabilities. You can find the article using this citation:
Schutz, M. A., Carter, E. W., Gajjar, S. A., & Maves, E. A. (2021). Strengthening transition partnerships through community conversation events. TEACHING Exceptional Children. Advanced online publication. https://doi.org/10.1177/0040059920987877
Also, we have created a new webpage on transition community conversations on our website, Transition Tennessee. After creating a free account, users can download materials for hosting an event here: https://transitiontn.org/community-conversations. These include sample invitations and other tools for recruiting attendees, materials for hosting the event and writing down notes, and templates for using information learned to set goals and improve practices. Finally, if you would like to speak with a Transition Tennessee team member for more guidance on community conversations, you may reach out through the Transition TN website. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, our team is adapting the community conversation model to support communities in hosting virtual events. We still have much to discover about using this model but will soon be able to share tips and lessons learned from this process.
We encourage you to adapt our templates, samples, and tips to meet the needs of your school and host a community conversation event. Moreover, teachers, agencies, students, and families can use the website, https://transitiontn.org, to freely access courses, materials, and tools for preparing youth and families for transition in a number of different areas. We hope to provide communities with the support needed to prepare youth with disabilities for adulthood and, in turn, improve the outcomes of adults with disabilities.
My thanks to Michele for sharing this updated information about the value of community conversations for schools and students with disabilities. I’ve participated in a number of community conversations over the years, sometimes as part of the host team through my work with TennesseeWorks, and sometimes as a participant. I’ve always enjoyed these events, and I’m not much of extrovert. If you’re a family member, and you think your school district could benefit from such event, please share this information with your school. The more buy-in we have from local communities in bolstering the employment and community involvement of students with disabilities, the better for all of us! As always, if you have questions or concerns, please email me at email@example.com. Thank you for reading.
Michele Schutz is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Special Education at Vanderbilt University. Prior to coming to Nashville, Michele worked as a high school special education teacher and transition specialist connecting students and families to postsecondary opportunities in the Chicago area. At Vanderbilt, she conducts research related to secondary transition programming for youth with disabilities and works as a team member on the Transition Tennessee systems-change project.
April 6, 2021