Students in this PA high school program set their own goals — it may be the secret to their success.

About 20 years ago, the students in one Pennsylvania high school's special education program decided they weren't learning enough in the classroom.

Sure, there are some transition skills that can be taught within a school building: how to count change, how to cook (on a single burner), how to sweep linoleum floors.


Instructor Jenny and a student work on money skills. Image via PSPB Creative Group.

But actually learning to be semi-independent in the real world? That's gonna take some practice.

They came up with an idea: an apartment outside of school where they could take turns living and practicing life skills with a transition coach.

That program (called LifeLink) was so successful that it's now a regular part of the curriculum for the Wild Dream Team, the special education program based at State College Area High School in Pennsylvania.

Wild Dream Team students learn how to navigate the bus system. Image courtesy of Jenny Yost-Lee.

"The students came to the conclusion that the classroom methods we were using to teach transition skills weren't sufficient," explains instructor Jenny Yost-Lee. "And they wanted to create a plan that enabled them to learn the skills in the real world."

At the LifeLink apartment, Wild Dream Team students have the opportunity to practice their skills in an environment that's a bit riskier than the classroom — no parents allowed.

It's a huge step forward for students with learning and developmental disabilities who want to push themselves. And it's a perfect complement to the transition curriculum they're learning in school.

The Wild Dream Team helps students with disabilities set goals to reach whatever level of independence is right for them.

All the while, Jenny Yost-Lee and the rest of the staff provide a supportive environment to help students reach those goals.

"My mission is to make [each student] a good neighbor," explains Jenny.

The students' goals, of course, vary widely: join Spanish club, spend a week in the LifeLink apartment, commit to a volunteer position in the community.

Jenny doesn't much care what the students can't do because of their disabilities. "I know what they can't do," she says. "That doesn't matter. I want to know what they can do."

A Wild Dream Team student in a job training program. Image courtesy of Jenny Yost-Lee.

But Jenny doesn't set goals for the students. Instead, they're the ones deciding what they want to do next.

"It's incredibly empowering when the students choose their own goals," Jenny explains. "When they say, 'I'm ready. I want to do this.'"

"This is about showing people what we can do."

Once a student has set a goal, though, that's when Jenny and the team step in. When a student commits to trying something new, "[they] do it unabashedly. There's no turning back."

Although Jenny may have a pivotal role in the success of the Wild Dream Team, she insists, "This is not about me. This is about the students and the team. It's about showing people what we can do."

Want to see for yourself what the students and the program can do? Take a look.

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Disney has come under fire for problematic portrayals of non-white and non-western cultures in many of its older movies. They aren't the only one, of course, but since their movies are an iconic part of most American kids' childhoods, Disney's messaging holds a lot of power.

Fortunately, that power can be used for good, and Disney can serve as an example to other companies if they learn from their mistakes, account for their misdeeds, and do the right thing going forward. Without getting too many hopes up, it appears that the entertainment giant may have actually done just that with the new Frozen II film.

According to NOW Toronto, the producers of Frozen II have entered into a contract with the Sámi people—the Indigenous people of the Scandinavian regions—to ensure that they portray the culture with respect.

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Though there was not a direct portrayal of the Sámi in the first Frozen movie, the choral chant that opens the film was inspired by an ancient Sámi vocal tradition. In addition, the clothing worn by Kristoff closely resembled what a Sámi reindeer herder would wear. The inclusion of these elements of Sámi culture with no context or acknowledgement sparked conversations about cultural appropriation and erasure on social media.

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Sámi leaders met with Disney producer Peter Del Vecho in September 2019.Sámediggi Sametinget/Flickr

The Sámi parliaments of Norway, Sweden and Finland, and the non-governmental Saami Council reached out to the filmmakers when they found out their culture would be highlighted in the film. They formed a Sámi expert advisory group, called Verddet, to assist filmmakers in with how to accurately and respectfully portray Sámi culture, history, and society.

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Disney agreed to work with the advisory group, to produce a version of Frozen II in one Sámi language, as well as to "pursue cross-learning opportunities" and "arrange for contributions back to the Sámi society."

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"Disney's team really wanted to make it right," said Utsi. "They didn't want to make any mistakes or hurt anybody. We felt that they took it seriously. And the film shows that. We in Verddet are truly proud of this collaboration."

Sounds like you've done well this time, Disney. Let's hope such cultural sensitivity and collaboration continues, and that other filmmakers and production companies will follow suit.

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