Self-advocacy: SEED professor partners with alumna to pilot student-driven transition plans

Sarah Johnston-Rodriguez
Sarah Johnston-Rodriguez

Choosing a path for after high school is rarely easy for any young adult, and that naturally includes those teens with special needs.

But for students with special needs at Hononegah High School in Rockton, Ill., those roads to “transition” are becoming clearer.

It’s thanks to a cutting-edge program researched and designed by NIU Department of Special and Early Education Professor Sarah Johnston-Rodriguez and implemented on the ground by NIU alum Angela Henbest, a Special Education teacher at Hononegah.

“Anyone who knows adolescents knows that they have to feel ownership for things to mean anything to them. To be motivated, it has to come from within,” Johnston-Rodriguez says. “Adolescent development is all about themselves. You can’t write goals for them. They have to be their goals. A teacher facilitates this, but the students discover on their own.”

Transition is a federally mandated process, Johnston-Rodriguez adds, and the language of the legislation encourages student-driven planning.

“Yet we weren’t doing that out in the field,” she says. “Our national stats on post-grad outcomes were terrible, especially for this particular group of students with emotional disabilities, and to me this seemed like a logical thing: Let this be theirs. Let this be more person-centered.”

NIU is one of only a few colleges or universities in Illinois that offers a course dedicated to transition, and Johnston-Rodriguez is collaborating nationally on her research on putting students in the driver’s seat.

Running a pilot of Project SEEC (Students Engaged in Exploring Careers) with Henbest and her students has given the NIU professor the proof that it works – and that it can prevent some students with special needs from “falling through the cracks.”

Angela Henbest
Angela Henbest

Meanwhile, when Henbest brings her students to the DeKalb campus to show their PowerPoint presentations to current NIU students in the Special Education major, it propagates Johnston-Rodriguez’s model into countless other school districts.

“Her students have shown an incredible turnaround,” Johnston-Rodriguez says of Henbest and Hononegah. “They’ve got these incredible career plans about going on to a job or going on to college. The cool thing is that they start understanding why school matters because now they’ve got goals.”

What they discover about themselves includes self-advocacy, self-determination, self-reliance and problem-solving abilities.

“Other teachers are doing this, but I’m the doing the most with it,” says Henbest, who holds a bachelor’s degree (LBS) and master’s degree in Reading from the NIU College of Education.

All of her students have Individualized Education Plans, most for learning disabilities or “Other Health Impairment,” such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder or anxiety.

She reconnected with Johnson-Rodriguez four years ago when she served as a cooperating teacher for a Special Education major from NIU. “Sarah got ahold of me that following summer to see if I would do the pilot,” Henbest says. “We had been struggling with how we did transition with our students.”

Beginning with her then-sophomores – they now are seniors about to graduate – Henbest guided the teens through the project, which includes a brief instruction, surveys of career explorations to discover or determine two areas of interest and creation of the PowerPoints.

Angela Henbest and her Hononegah High School students visit NIU.


“They’re basically telling their story – who they are, what their interests are, how school is for them, what’s easy, what’s hard, where they need help, where that difficulty lies for them with their disability,” she says. “The best part is that it gets the kids actually talking to their parents about it. It gets them excited about what they’re going to do when they leave Hononegah.”

Questions are involved as well. Who offers the college program I want? How do I get there? What grades do I need?

“What we’ve embedded involves a great deal of metacognition – as in, ‘Now I’ve got to sit down and summarize this information, and think about what my goals are. Is Option A better than Option B?’ ” Johnston-Rodriguez says.

“We’re leading them through this process of metacognition where before, they might have just said, ‘Oh, I don’t know.’ It has become a very connected, fluid process for students, and now they have a map,” she adds. “Their investment in it, their ownership of it, even their maturity – it just blows me away, and I’ve been very close to it.”

hononegah-logoHononegah teachers also are thrilled with the initial results, Henbest says.

“I’m really excited about that first group. We have a lot more who have already applied to college or have been accepted to college or trade programs,” she says. “In previous years, we’ve not had that many kids that focused and decided on what they’re doing.”

“She’s gone from having kids who knew nothing about what they wanted to do – whether they’d stay in school – to having kids who are already enrolled in college. One young woman was accepted by five colleges,” Johnston-Rodriguez says. “It’s pretty remarkable to see.”

Now in its third year, the project has grown to encompass all four grades of Hononegah students, although most of the work takes place during the sophomore year.

Freshmen, juniors and seniors all have checklists, either to start thinking about transition, to keep them on track or to help them adjust should their career interests change after sophomore year. The upperclassmen also hang onto and revisit the portfolios they create.

During their sophomore-year visit to NIU, the teens answer questions from the NIU students about their PowerPoints and participate in group activities with the licensure-candidates where they talk about how the process has empowered them and how teachers can help.

“Some share their own artwork or photography. They talk about where they’re going, and how they’re going to get there,” Johnston-Rodriguez says. “They also work with our NIU students on the process of self-determination, and that’s the underlying piece that’s really critical to us.”

Many have NIU in their sights, she adds, while others are looking toward Rock Valley College.

campusTouring the DeKalb campus after their visit to Gabel Hall provides inspiration for what’s possible – and what it will take to blossom in college.

“It takes them longer to learn,” Henbest says, “and they understand that. They know that they need to figure out their best process or avenue. It’s not that they can’t go to college, but college, for them, is going to look different. They’re going to have to reach out for resources that maybe other students are not going to need.”

NIU students, on the other hand, enjoy a close-up glimpse of a program that works.

“All of the students in this seminar have implemented a similar process in their clinicals. Now they’re seeing living proof – longitudinally, two and three years out – what the impact was on students. They get to interact with them, get engaged with the hands-on aspect of self-determination in students and work hands with the students,” Johnston-Rodriguez says.

“My students are pretty amazed at how articulate the high school students are. Some of them would never know that these were students who were struggling before,” she adds. “They’re also pretty amazed at how clear their goals are, how explicit their plans are and what strong self-advocates they are in their determination to reach these goals.”

Johnston-Rodriguez is equally impressed by the Hononegah sophomores. “One guy wants to be a film director,” she says, “and after you talk to him for 10 minutes, you think he will be.”

More great impressions are coming.

The professor and the alumna conducted an all-day training in Project SEEC last October, something that takes their collaboration to a higher level.

“Angela has been really dedicated to this, and she’s doing an outstanding job. She wanted to make some changes, do some innovative things – and she has done a great job of supporting the students through that. Her students all want to go to college,” Johnston-Rodriguez says.

“Our partnership has worked so well,” she adds. “It’s a real example of taking the Ivory Tower and putting it out into practice and then having it come back full-circle.”

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