Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Saint Vincent Graduation Includes Special Needs Students for First Time Program Teaches Academic, Living, Vocational Skills

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Saint Vincent Graduation Includes Special Needs Students for First Time Program Teaches Academic, Living, Vocational Skills

Article excerpt

Zachary Dixon gave a triumphant fist-pump Saturday as he crossed the stage in cap and gown at Saint Vincent College's commencement.

It was the first time that students in the college's program for those with intellectual disabilities marched at commencement.

They did so at the insistence of their fellow classmates, and they received a standing ovation.

"It just seemed right," Alaina D'Aloiso of Upper St. Clair, who graduated with a degree in early childhood education, said of having the students in the transition to adulthood program take part in commencement. "It was important . they should be honored for completing their program."

The five students completed Bearcat BEST - Building Excellence through Skills Training - a program that serves 18- to 21-year-olds who have intellectual disabilities such as Down syndrome or autistic disorder.

"This graduation day is so special because not every young person with a disability is able to have a college experience and graduate with his peers," said Lynda Dixon, Mr. Dixon's mother. "Until two years ago, we did not have that expectation for Zach."

Bearcat BEST teaches reading and math skills to support vocational opportunities for the students. It also teaches social and household management skills such as cooking, laundry, cleaning and hygiene. In preparation to work with provider agencies, the students learn to advocate for themselves.

"The program was created primarily to address concerns expressed by parents of students with disabilities in this area who felt that there just wasn't any kind of programming for their students," said the Rev. Philip Kanfush, director of the program at the college in Unity, near Latrobe.

Aided by student job coaches, those in the program work on campus in the library, bookstore, cafeteria, fitness center and elsewhere.

Miss D'Aloiso worked with four students at the bookstore and in housekeeping.

"At the beginning, I had to show them all the steps, and by the end [of the semester], I could step away," she said.

Before completing the program, each Bearcat student does an externship, initially with a job coach, at a local business, such as Giant Eagle, Eat'n Park or Christ the Divine Teacher School. …

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