The Coast News Group
Monique Combs takes her students in Oceanside Unified’s Adult Transition Program thrift shopping to practice independent living and to prepare for the opening of the school’s own on-site thrift store. Courtesy photo

Amid pandemic, transition program helps students be independent

OCEANSIDE — Turning a hands-on program that teaches students life skills and workforce experience into a successful, virtual setting may seem like a near impossible task, but a team of teachers came together to make it happen.

For the past decade, Oceanside Unified School District’s Adult Transition Program has served students ages 18 to 22 with disabilities. Its purpose is to provide functional academics and work experience to help students become more independent and prepare them for life after school.

At the beginning of the 2019-2020 school year, the program expanded by moving from Ditmar Elementary into its own building on Carey Road. Things were going well, but nothing could have prepared the teachers or students for what was to come in March that school year — the COVID-19 pandemic and shutdown.

After schools closed, the program rested for about a week or two while its staff worked fast to make everything virtual and engaging for students.

“When we first started, we had to really hook them,” said Monique Combs, lead teacher of the program.

Combs said she would have dance parties at the end of each session to liven things up for her students online. She also made several videos where she would show herself cooking, doing laundry, cleaning dishes and other daily household activities.

“It was about finding ways to still address the areas that we focus on,” Combs said.

Combs said she had 100% participation at the end of last spring.

According to program coordinator Grace Ridgeway, Combs spent numerous hours working with other teachers to get the virtual classrooms up and running and make their lessons engaging.

The program’s teachers would make videos about gardening, exercise and other activities that have now turned into clubs for the students, many of whom are back in the classroom part-time in a hybrid schedule.

“I can’t tell you how many Google folders I have with every possible activity,” Combs said.

A lot of classroom time has also shifted outdoors, including Combs’ weekly cooking classes using a mobile kitchen cart that she sets up outside.

The program is also gearing up to open its own outdoor thrift store in the fall, something that will help its students build more job skills. Previously the program partnered with several local businesses to introduce students to the workforce, but the pandemic put a hold on that as well.

“We had to think outside the box in terms of giving them real work experience,” Combs said. “For a lot of our students, their goal is to work retail, but we didn’t want to put anyone in a dangerous situation.”

The thrift store would give students experience with pricing and sorting items and, ultimately, what it takes to run a thrift store.

The program still operates its food pantry, working with Nutrition Services to allow students to distribute the food put together for families in need.

Another crucial part of the program is providing social interactions among students and their peers, something that the pandemic challenged. Because they weren’t able to meet up for holiday events, the program moved Halloween, Christmas and other celebrations online.

Last year, the program’s teachers even drove to students’ homes to drop off cake, balloons, gift cards and other treats to celebrate graduation.

“We’ve kept all of our activities, and although we couldn’t be in person we really engaged with our students to participate in different ways,” Ridgeway said. “Our teachers came together to find so many different ways to celebrate our students.”

To honor her teachers, Ridgeway nominated the program for a regional special education award. In April, the program received an Excellence in Special Education award from the North Coastal Consortium of Special Education, a local special education planning area consisting of 14 school districts in San Diego County, including Oceanside Unified.

“My teachers have done a phenomenal job getting students actively involved,” Ridgeway said.