How Kids With Special Needs Transition to a Productive Life

Because Northside Learning Center High School’s mission is a meaningful life for every student, they work hard to help kids build the skills they’ll need. Learn how.

From their earliest days at Northside Learning Center High School, a school for kids 14 to 22 with significant intellectual disabilities and impaired adaptive functioning, students prepare for their eventual transition into the wider world. They spend seven years learning and building skills to find their best fit in the world of work and independent or interdependent living.

“Our mission is for our students at 22 to not be sitting on the couch at their parents’ house,” says Elizabeth Mourtokokis, assistant principal at Northside Learning Center. “Instead, they will all be doing something as vital members of their community in whatever way they are able.”

Academics and more

Students typically come to Northside Learning Center after attending a general education elementary and middle school and are placed through their IEP. As a Chicago Public School, Northside Learning Center supports students to district guidelines for achieving a diploma. They have access to Common Core standards and outcomes through a modified and individualized curriculum.

In classrooms with a maximum of 13, students with individual goals and ability levels work with teachers who are certified in special education. “I teach 75 skills in 50 minutes to a variety of different levels,” says Carri Annunzio, special education teacher and community-based instructor. “And I love every minute of it.”

All teachers at Northside Learning Center are trained and certified in special education. The onsite team of paraprofessionals, psychologists, social workers, counselors, case managers, occupational and speech-language therapists provide students the supportive services they need. With specialized instruction, students are able to achieve credits for graduation and a full diploma.

Work- and world-readiness

What’s unique about Northside Learning Center is its interdisciplinary and intensive approach to skill-building to prepare students for the world of work. “We do a series of baseline assessments in 15 different domains,” explains Mourtokokis.

Three times each year for seven years, students’ skills are assessed for occupational preparedness. Students also demonstrate independent functioning skills, including socialization, every other year. “These two different assessments give us a whole picture of the child and not just their academic performance,” Mourtokokis says.

Through occupational skill development, students learn tasks for their future working lives. Within Northside Learning Center’s cafe, they learn food prep essentials, handwashing, and how to operate the commercial dishwashing machine. In the onsite car wash, they learn the many tasks involved in cleaning a vehicle.

While some students are able to master multistep tasks, others learn better with reinforcement of each successive step. And, some students learn they can be successful with modifications.

“Many have mobility and sensory issues, so it’s all about finding modifications to help them,” Mourtokokis says. “If they don’t have the dexterity to hold the squeegee, what can we use so they can reach that goal? It might be as simple as attaching an extension.”

Safety and independence

Because the transition to the world after Northside Learning Center means learning how to safely navigate the world, beginning in their first year, students learn to move about with some level of independence.

“They begin by learning to transition within the building,” Annunzio says. “In order to get from room 101 to room 107, they must be able to identify the elevator and the stairwell correctly because when they go to work, they need to know how to navigate these things.”

If necessary, students learn to cross the street independently and safely, and they learn to recognize 52 different safety signs and signals. What they don’t know, they learn through repetition.

As students grow and develop skills, their teachers continually assess what occupations they might be suited for. When they are ready, they may be placed in community-based instruction opportunities at one of Northside Learning Center’s numerous partners, which include restaurants, grocery stores and hospitals. Some students gain competitive employment in these businesses after graduation. Others participate in a therapeutic recreational program through the Chicago Park District or in day programs at workshops or other community facilities.

Wraparound support for families

Teachers and staff at Northside Learning Center High School develop a strong rapport with families over the seven years their child is a student. Through these relationships, the staff helps families navigate services and resources for their young adults with disabilities. They even host a transition fair at the school with 45 different support organizations.

“We help facilitate each student’s next steps. In that way, we are much more than an education for these students. We are a wraparound service,” says Mourtokokis.

Because families don’t have to spend time and energy seeking out resources, they can focus on what’s most important: seeing their young adult achieve the next phase of life.

“We want the student’s transition out of our school and into adulthood to be a meaningful one,” Mourtokokis says. “Our kids absolutely deserve to have a fulfilling and enjoyable life with as much independence as they are able to achieve. The more support they and their families receive, the better. We have a lot of success stories to share.”

Learn more about Northside Learning Center High School and schedule a tour at


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