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Diana Haglund | Making learning personal for special education students

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Imagine going to work and loving your job so much that you throw away your first paycheck. This is a true story. A special education student who went through the Wenatchee High School Community Based Learning Program was hired at Pizza Hut after doing a work-based learning experience there. He felt so valued for the work that he was doing that he didn’t understand why he was being paid to do a job he loved so he threw away his first check in the trash. If this isn’t the essence of personalized learning then I don’t know what is.

Students with disabilities are defined as those identified with one or more of the 13 disability categories specified in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The importance of successful transitional planning and programming for students with disabilities in high school is important and has economic implications. More than that, it gives kids a sense of accomplishment and pride that can have an enormous effect on personal growth and learning.

Penny Hedman, coordinator of the Community Based Learning Program for the Special Education Department at Wenatchee High School, and her staff are working hard to make learning relevant for students with special needs. Through the use of career exploration and skill assessment tools, the staff help students identify a career and pathway to reach that goal. With the help of Nancy Jagla, job developer, they are able to place students on a work site to test-drive a career through job shadow or hands-on work.

Hedman told me her students gain confidence from these opportunities and see their worth and value in the community. “Many of our students start out feeling like things happen to them or for them. By working, they are doing something for others.” Students who take part in an on-the-job experience have a more direct path to employment after high school. On occasion, students are offered jobs with employers they work with. For many more, they see their student learning experience as their job and not just another school activity.

The Community Based Learning Program has many local partners and businesses that offer experiential learning to special needs students but there is a need to offer a wider array of choices. The small business community has been a tremendous supporter, said Hedman. She is working to open the doors for her students at larger businesses too. “Probably, the hardest thing is the corporate red tape. Liability issues that make it difficult for them to take on our students restrict many chains. These businesses offer such a wealth of opportunity for on-the-job learning too.”

Transportation can be a barrier for many special education students. Through the help of Link Transit, students participating in work-site learning are able to get a yearlong bus pass at a discounted rate to ride the bus to and from the job site.

Much of the work that is being done by Hedman and her staff aligns with the goals of Wenatchee Learns. They are: personalizing education for students, tapping into the power of the community; cultivating business partnerships and helping students explore career paths. The special education staff also has plans to develop a transitional program for students ages 18-21 that will focus on enhancing the school-to-work experience.

For more information on the Special Education Community Based Learning program, please contact Penny Hedman at

Diana Haglund is the Wenatchee Learns Coordinator for the Wenatchee School District. She can be reached at