The smiles, the jokes and the satisfied bellies said it all last week when five mentally challenged young people finished off the pasta Bolognese they made from scratch for their lunch in their classroom apartment in Oxford.One might have expected it could be messy and just a little dangerous. But these students from Kennett Square, Unionville and Avon Grove schools have learned a lot about taking care of themselves since last fall. They are learning to live and work independently through their participation in the Chester County Intermediate Unit's Transitional Learning Program.

The CCIU has set up a two-bedroom apartment with all the amenities in Oxford where the students spend Tuesdays and Thursdays each week with teacher Sharon Schreier learning household management-cooking, cleaning, budgeting, organizing and shopping. On Mondays and Fridays they have jobs in the community. Wednesday is their favorite day because they spend it with their mentors, students in West Chester University's education department, tagging along, visiting the library, working on a computer and learning social skills interacting with peers.

The community-based program is for students between the ages of 18 and 21 who have finished their in-class studies at high school and are capable enough and motivated enough for eventual independent living. Five days a week they are engaged in work, life and social activities geared to help them move from home to the outside world.

Disabled students may participate in the program until they are 21 years old. The CCIU program staff works with all disabilities, but does have certain behavioral and performance expectations to which it adheres. The staff seeks on-campus work experiences for students with serious medical or behavioral problems or those who require more supervision.

For the students in the Transitional Living Program, this is the last step in their high school careers. Beginning in ninth grade qualifying underclassmen enroll in the life skills program and spend 25 days each school year in the Vocational Exploration program. They are vanned to work sites three days a week and spend two hours volunteering and gaining experience, learning team work, appropriate workplace behavior and work-related skills under the careful supervision of CCIU job coaches. The purpose of Vocational Exploration is to prepare the students for eventual paid employment.

The CCIU modeled the Transitional Living program after one developed by Penn State University. In 2006 it initiated a program and set up an apartment in West Chester for students from the northern part of the county. This past fall high school students from Unionville, Kennett Square and Avon Grove got their first look at their apartment.

Tuesday's meal last week was a special occasion with a familiar guest chef teaching the students a few of his cooking secrets. The chef, Juergen Steininger, has worked for six years with the CCIU kids in the job exploration program at Longwood Gardens where he is a grower.

They began the morning at the apartment discussing the menu, then made a shopping list, took the van to a nearby grocery store, found everything they needed, read labels and made the purchase. Once back at the apartment they unpacked, washed their hands, the pots and all the work surfaces, assembled what they needed and Steininger assigned them tasks. He kindly and patiently explained, demonstrated and carefully supervised every step, just as he is accustomed to doing when students pot bulbs for him at Longwood.

Steininger was as proud of the students as they were of themselves. "In my experience working with these kids, they all have a talent. It just needs to be found. You just have to spend time with them. It's just a shame more people don't take the time."

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