Special Education teacher has 'high ambitions' for students

ORR program works with 18- to 22-year-olds
By Georgia Sparling | Sep 21, 2016
Photo by: Georgia Sparling Becky Okolita stands in one of two rooms she and her students occupy at ORR.

Mattapoisett — If there’s one thing Becky Okolita is short on, it isn’t ideas.

The former Old Rochester Regional basketball player is now leading the high school’s new transitional special education program for ages 18 to 22, and she has a long list of things she wants her students to do – an organic garden, a coffee club, learn to cook, volunteer in the towns, sew, manage their own money and more.

“With this transition program, you get to see them find success and independence for the rest of their lives,” said Okolita.

Originally from the tri-town, Okolita spent a number of years in California where she worked in education, including an early intervention program and a middle school autism program.

“This comes full circle for me,” she said of her new position.

Like the program itself, Okolita’s two-room space in the high school isn’t traditional. Her four students, who have a variety of physical and mental challenges, have one room with tables and chairs, a sewing machine, a toaster oven and microwave, and workstations. The other room has comfortable seats and a view of the courtyard where students can take a breather when needed.

“I think a classroom would have made them feel they were still in high school,” Okolita said. “We want to give them the feeling that they're transitioning into the adult world.”

The need for such a program isn’t new. State laws require that schools provide education for special needs students through age 22, sooner if they receive their high school degree. Until this year, however, students 18 and older were sent out of district at great cost to the tri-town, which paid for both transportation and tuition.

In 2016, all out placements for special education students, from kindergarten through age 22, added up to almost $1.8 million.

Business Administrator Patrick Spencer said on average it costs $95,000 to $175,000 to educate one student with special needs out of the district. The new transitional program costs $80,000 to $90,000, thus saving the towns at least $380,000 this year.

More importantly, stress administrators, is that the students stay in their own community.

“This is ground breaking for Old Rochester,” said Mike Nelson, director of student services.

With the services now in-house, Okolita’s students can learn vocational, social and life skills in the tri-town. Okolita wants to help her students be as independent as they can. The outgoing, fast-talking teacher said people often let special needs students off the hook instead of helping them reach their full potential.

“Our society doesn't see the value of what the special population can do for our community,” she said. “I have high ambitions for my students. They can do more than anyone thinks. I'm ready to take on that challenge.”

Although Okolita has lots of ideas, she isn’t trying to roll them all out in one semester. To begin with, she and two teaching aids are working on getting to know their students and finding out what they want to do.

Already the students are learning vocational skills, including doing laundry for the cafeteria and helping teachers with tasks such as printing and laminating papers.

The students will establish their own coffee cart soon to sell beverages to teachers, and that will also give them the opportunity to learn how to manage money and work on interpersonal skills.

Eventually, Okolita wants to start a garden at the school and have students sell their produce at the farmers market as well as sell their own handmade items.

She also wants to see her students engage in the community twice a week.

Above all, Okolita’s goal is for her students to succeed in the real world as they take small steps towards becoming more self-sufficient.

“In this program, even the small gains are huge,” she said. “And they make me happy every day. They are full of love and life.”

One of Becky Okolita's students is a skilled sewer. The teacher hopes to set up a booth at the ORR Farmers Market where the students can sell their handmade goods and interact with the community. (Photo by: Georgia Sparling)
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