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November 26, 2003

Students take a whirl with the real world

From: Oregonian, OR - Nov 26, 2003

School for the Deaf students tackle turkey dinners and bill paying as they prepare for life's big next steps


VANCOUVER A fter 24 hours of preparation, the team of student cooks crowded the kitchen, eagerly anticipating the most pivotal moment of that first holiday turkey dinner. "Look at that," said chaperone Nancy Sinkovitz, marveling at the 17-pound seasoned, steaming bird. "It's done, and it is beautiful."

The cooks, about eight young women at the Washington School for the Deaf, responded by lifting their hands and spinning their open palms in the air -- sign language for "applause."

The students were preparing a Thanksgiving feast for their residential family, about a dozen fellow students living in the school's Watson West cottage. Creating the feast -- rolls, cranberry sauce, stuffing, corn, sweet and mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie -- was part of the Independent Living Skills program designed to give 11th- and 12th-grade students a taste of what to expect when they leave the sanctuary of campus life.

They have to create their Thanksgiving meal, including drinks, with $55 -- a practice that gives them a feel for real-life skills. Through the program, students also learn to pay bills, find an apartment and eat on limited budgets.

The program is meant to "provide students with skill development opportunities and information they need to help them live independently," said Sinkovitz, residential program supervisor and co-coordinator of the living skills component.

About two-thirds of the school's graduating students go on to college, while the rest enter the work force, said Judy Smith, the school's executive assistant. Either way, the students need to be prepared to be on their own.

Students in the program are paid imaginary wages of $7 an hour to attend high school classes. On average, they earn slightly more than $179 a week after taxes, Social Security and health plan and insurance fees.

Using fake checks donated by a Vancouver bank, the students plan and pay monthly bills to the school, including $210 for rent, $200 for food, $105 for weekend transportation home, a laundry list of utilities and even $3.33 for stamps.

"By the time they get out of here, they should be real good at paying bills," said Pat Almer, Independent Living Skills co-coordinator.

Bills "always due, due, due" Speaking through a sign language interpreter, Federico Deleon, 18, said he has grudgingly accepted the necessity of monthly bills.

"They're always due, due, due," Deleon said. "But that's the real world."

There are perks. Students in the program don't have a set study hour, and they get a later bedtime. They also get more privileges to venture off campus, as long as they follow proper checkout procedure.

"This gives them more responsibilities," Sinkovitz said. "They have to earn all their privileges."

This means students must wake up on their own, usually with a vibrating alarm clock under their pillows. Tardiness to class means docked pay, Sinkovitz said. Excuses are rarely accepted.

Once a month, the older students must plan, purchase and prepare a meal -- on budget -- for their residential families. Each cottage, which houses as many as 15 students, gets up to $40 to feed the household, although they received extra for Thanksgiving.

"When they get out in the real world, they're not going to have a lot of money for food," Sinkovitz said. "They're going to be on a much tighter budget. It's going to be ramen noodles and macaroni and cheese."

The program also has exercises in elections, car buying, apartment renting and public transportation.

Transportation test In early November, groups of Independent Living Skills students were dropped at locations throughout Vancouver and told to find their way back to the Grand Boulevard campus. Each group, supervised by a staff member, was charged with navigating the proper bus route, which included at least one connection.

"I thought I knew about public transportation," said Persius McDaniel, 18, whose group started from the Fruit Valley Community Learning Center northwest of downtown Vancouver. "But I didn't know about reading schedules."

Student courses in car and apartment shopping include bargaining techniques and the requirements of an apartment for a deaf person.

Items such as doorbells, phones and fire alarms that trigger the lights to flicker are easily overlooked, Sinkovitz said. The exercise lets students see different types of apartments.

"We tell them that if they're living only off of (Social Security income), they might be able to afford something on the very low end," Sinkovitz said.

Almer quickly added: "And that doesn't include buying food."

For students such as McDaniel -- who plans to attend Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., the nation's leading school for people with hearing disabilities -- the program has provided needed perspective.

"In the real world, I thought I was going to be free," said McDaniel, who is from Seattle. "But ILS did teach me that it is not all fun. I realized that the real world is real." Jason Begay: 360-896-5719 or 503-294-5900;

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