Randolph special needs students learn life skills in a house all their own

Randolph High School students empty the dishwasher, make coffee, and flip pancakes in a home that’s also a classroom.

“I like doing things on my own. I like working independently,” said student Jillian Mantell.

The home is part of the Randolph Township School District. It’s part of their transitional program for students with special needs, specifically for the qualifying 18- to 21-year-olds.

“The inspiration for this really came from one of our students as one of the students in our program graduated 12th grade on the field. I was really excited to see that happen. And when the fall came around, I saw that student back in the hallways of our high school and I realized they didn’t truly get a chance to graduate to something else,” said Randolph Township School Superintendent Jennifer Fano. “When the house went on the market, it was the ideal time to create a space where they could graduate and move on to the next stage.”

After a few renovations, the home officially opened at the beginning of the school year. Nine students spend each weekday at the house. They’re responsible for chores and maintaining the house. A teacher and paraprofessionals guide them through each task, including gardening and collecting fresh eggs from their chicken coop. Each week, they take inventory and write a shopping list.

“We may not always agree what to get, but we have to plan a meal for the week, we have to make sure that we have all the cleaning products for the week, our general staples,” said Randolph High School transition teacher Rick Eva.

The staff says students have created a home away from home of sorts and an extended family.

“I look up to my five adult friends. They mean so much to me,” said Mantell.

The program focuses on life, social and vocational skills, says transition program coordinator Brianne McBreen. The students also work in the school store and within the community. During the day, they go on trips to places like the grocery store and mall.

“We want to support the whole student. We want to make them as independent as possible in every possible appropriate setting,” said McBreen.

Although the students typically go home at the end of the school day, the staff says they’re always looking for ways for the housemates to bond, which is why they coordinated a sleepover at the house one night. They also host a dinner club a few times a month, and parents are always welcome to collaborate throughout the year.

McBreen is proud of the students’ growth.

“They’re relying on each other as opposed to relying on adults, and they also need less. So as we are preparing to graduate four students this year, we’re finding that their ability levels have increased tremendously just within the short period of time that we’ve been in this house and their ability to act independently,” she said.

“It’s readiness. We talk about college and career readiness — this provides them the career readiness for that next step,” said Walter Curioni, director of special services for the school district.

“I want the students to be able to integrate into our local community and be active participants, lifelong active participants,” said special services supervisor Evy Falcon-Duran.

Twenty-year-old student Andrew Beidman likes folding laundry and making repairs around the house, like changing light bulbs.

“I feel like I’m doing good work and stuff,” he said.

The staff says they know he is, along with all the other students.