(Posted January 20, 2003)

HUNTINGDON, Pa. -- Most primary and secondary schools in Pennsylvania offer some type of "Life Skills" education for students who have moderate to severe disabilities, but many of these students rarely get a chance to test their skills in a setting beyond their own school.

An all-volunteer program in Juniata College's education department, the Community Progress and Social Skills program (COMPASS), matches up students from the Life Skills class at Huntingdon Area High School with volunteer students who are studying special or general education at Juniata. The Juniata students accompany and supervise the students from the Life Skills class as they work at jobs in various offices and departments within the college.

The Huntingdon students, who range in age from 16 to 21, work at tasks such as mailing skills, athletic uniform preparation and other jobs. The COMPASS program, which was started by three Juniata students in 2000, not only allows the Huntingdon students to find work experiences beyond their classroom, but also allows Juniata students, all of whom are studying to be teachers, invaluable experience interacting with students who have disabilities.

"The program grew out of Juniata's course 'Methods for Students With Low Incidence Disabilities,' where three of my students noticed during their field experience that students in the Life Skills class really looked forward to getting out in the community more," says Ellen Long, assistant professor of education and the Juniata faculty member who oversees the program. "We try to tie in what the high school student is working on in school with their job on campus."

"Working with the students from the COMPASS program has been the most rewarding experience I have been involved with," says Christi Shover, a junior from Duncansville, Pa. studying elementary and special education. "The students are always ready to work, as well as learn about responsibility and gain social skills. As college students, we are closer to the age of the high school students, which helps make the students more comfortable working on campus."

The Juniata students in COMPASS receive no class credit or payment for their time. The program numbers fluctuate each semester, but there have been as many as eight Juniata students matched up with Huntingdon Area High School Life Skills students during a semester.

"The Juniata students get much more focused experience working closely with a student with disabilities in this program than they do in their courses that have field experiences," Long says. "The program takes the theory the Juniata students learn in class and puts the lessons into practice. For instance, one of the students from the life skills class we have worked with is deaf, and the student assigned to work with her was able to use sign language skills beyond a classroom setting."

The students from the Life Skills class have worked in Juniata's athletic equipment department, the college's facilities maintenance department, the print publications office, the enrollment office and at the college's post office. "I have been able to use the techniques I learned in my classes at Juniata to help the students learn various skills, and those same techniques will allow me to better help my own students in the future," Shover says.

Long points out that students studying to be teachers will inevitably teach children with disabilities, even if they are not special education majors. "The students in COMPASS are not required to be in special education," Long explains. "They do have to complete a course called 'Introduction to Students with Exceptionalities,' but I generally have more Juniata students interested in doing the program than I have slots for."

Each Juniata student visits the Huntingdon Area High School Life Skills class at least three times before escorting the Huntingdon student to their job on campus.

"I've seen that by participating in the program, my students have become more confident and it really brings them out of their shell," says Ellen Riley, special education teacher at Huntingdon Area High School. "I find the Juniata students to be excellent and it is a blessing not only for our class but also for the Juniata students, who will have the ability to interact with mentally challenged student when they become teachers."

Contact April Feagley at feaglea@juniata.edu or (814) 641-3131 for more information.