Before he became a part of an alternative education program, Andy Chappelear would have been sitting in classrooms at McDonough High School for the sixth straight year, taking the same special education courses he had taken in previous years, earning a certificate of attendance.
But this year, sitting in a room at the sheriff's station at St. Charles Towne Center, he is working on his resume and outlining his career goals. He is learning what it takes to buy a car, how to eat healthy food and how to make sure he gets the correct change when buying lunch.
And every so often, he works a shift at Suncoast Video, a store located a few yards away from his classroom at the mall.
The room--and the mall, for that matter--have become a classroom of sorts for the county's Adult Independence Program. The program--funded partly by a state grant--prepares special education students for life outside of school and its new mall location allows students more interaction with employers and police personnel.
The program began in Charles County two years ago as a new way for the school system to fulfill its state mandate to serve special education students until they reach the age of 21. These are students who were unable to earn a high school diploma in four years because of their disabilities, and who, under a more traditional curriculum, would have stayed in high school until they turned 21.
But Charles County decided to try something different.
"We really don't have anything to offer them that's constructive in a high school setting," said Tony Silva, the school system's vocational evaluator. "They are not academic-type learners. Our focus here is readiness for the adult world."
And that means integration into society, Silva said. The seven students in the program spend two days each week at the mall, where police personnel and other community members offer lectures on how to survive outside of the conference room. For two more days, they take noncredit courses at Charles County Community College--a rare chance for them to interact with college students, Silva said. While not in class, most of them work at local fast-food restaurants and retail stores in the mall. Instructors monitor them at work until the students show they can handle assigned tasks on their own.
It's a long way from the hallways of the county's high schools.
"I don't stand in front of a blackboard," said their teacher, Theresa Sacchi, a special education resource teacher for the county. "The biggest difference is we don't have a classroom. We don't want one because we don't think that is where these students learn."
"Our students don't do math in the classroom. They do math here," Sacchi said, pointing to the food court area as the students dashed to food shops for lunch.
The 18- to 21-year-old students receive instruction in academics, vocational training, life skills and even recreational activities. On a recent day, a police officer talked to the students about how driver's license points work and how many are assessed for various traffic violations.
Later, the students sat around a table as their teacher and her aide chatted with them about their goals for jobs.
Sheri Harrington, an 18-year-old who attended Lackey High School, said she wants to go into a health profession, but would apply for a job at Hecht's in the meantime.
"What is it going to take, Sheri?" Sacchi said. "It's going to take a long time, volunteer work, job shadowing" (an exercise in which a student follows the work day of someone in a job in a field that interests the student).
Chappelear said he's willing to put in the time to get the job he really wants, anything that would put him in the film industry.
"I'm learning how to get a job and mastering my skills," Chappelear said. For now, he said, working at a video store and expanding his movie collection, which is 400-strong already, is enough of an accomplishment.
CAPTION: Teacher Joyce Yates looks over a monthly class schedule with Donny Phillips, 20, one of seven students in the county program.
CAPTION: Charles County's Adult Independence Program teaches Andy Chappelear and other special education students about life after high school.
CAPTION: Crystal Landman, 18, works at Wendy's restaurant. The program's mall location allows students more interaction with employers.