The Evolution of Transition Services in Virginia: An Interview with Sharon Hall DeFur

Sharon deFur is in her first year as an assistant professor of special education at the College of William and Mary.  Prior to this appointment, Dr. deFur served as an educational specialist with the Virginia Department of Education, where she collaborated with the Department of Rehabilitative Services (DRS) to create Virginia's Unified Intercommunity Transition and Empowerment for Youth with Disabilities (Project UNITE). As Dr. deFur settles into her new position at William and Mary, Link Lines took the opportunity to ask her to reflect upon the impact of Project UNITE and the current state of transition services in Virginia.

Link Lines:  Project UNITE has recently reached the end of its five-year funding period.  What do you see as its most significant accomplishment and potential legacy?

Dr. deFur: The UNITE project was a unique experience for all involved, from those of us who were in the official roles to each and every local school division and rehabilitation office that actually implemented the vision of the project.  I believe that UNITE served to unify much of Virginia in our vision that youth with disabilities could experience successful transitions, and that comprehensive transition services can make a difference in the lives of youth and their families. It is said that when 15% of the population believe in a concept, the momentum for change exists.  I believe UNITE reached well beyond 15%!  The legacy then is momentum for systemic change in how we prepare students with disabilities for their futures as adults.

Link Lines:  Much of your research has been devoted to identifying skills and competencies for transition specialists.  As you know, there are many other players in the planning process.  What role do you see for other school personnel in the delivery of quality transition services?

Dr. deFur: Educational research consistently reports that the building administrator plays a key instructional role in student achievement and in supporting faculty in their efforts to provide effective programs.  Administrators need to understand the importance of interagency collaboration for effective transition service delivery. They can encourage in-school collaboration and make resources available to provide opportunities for staff to develop skills in providing comprehensive transition services. General education teachers will now be participating in IEP meetings where transition planning takes place. These teachers can play a vital role in promoting instructional activities that encourage self-determination skills as well as the academic and vocational skills needed for successful transitions. In fact, follow-up studies suggest that students with disabilities who have successful general education experiences do much better in all aspects of adult life.  Vocational educators, in particular, have long held a key role in transition planning.  Research indicates that students who participated in vocational education classes are more likely to be employed. In addition, parent roles are key.  As "case managers" for their child, parents must have an understanding of the support options and the process for accessing these supports for adult services. But perhaps most of all, parents need to develop skills in the ongoing promotion of self-determination for their adult child.

Link Lines:  Writing IEPs that contain student-centered, outcome-oriented transition goals that accurately reflect individual needs, preferences, and interests has always been a hallmark of good transition planning.  How do you see this practice blending with the current state requirement for the Standards of Learning?

Dr. deFur: The SOL and transition curricula do not have to be mutually exclusive. Many SOL lend themselves to the development of social and self-advocacy skills, and other skills of self-determination.  The context for instruction can be made relevant for students by relating these skills to future employment, postsecondary education, and independent living. For now, the SOL represent a primary accountability tool for Virginia schools.  I, for one, am glad that students with disabilities are being included in that accountability framework; to do otherwise relegates these students to second-class citizenship, a status that disability advocates have spent the past three decades fighting.

Link Lines:  The Virginia Department of Education and DRS have identified transition as a continuing priority area for training and technical assistance.  What recommendations do you have for maximizing collaboration between the T/TACs and DRS?

Dr. deFur: Virginia is recognized nationally for the collaborative transition programs and initiatives between VaDOE and DRS.  Local transition teams should be encouraged to set and revise goals and conduct joint projects that continue to maintain the vitality of local transition services. In the long run, research indicates that system change occurs because of the leadership of the people involved.  The current T/TACs and DRS have a prime opportunity to continue to lead collaboratively the ongoing development of transition services for Virginia's youth.

Link Lines: Much has changed in the field of transition since Madeline Will proposed the creation of a bridge from school to work.  What do you view as the field's most pressing current issue and what do you predict for the future of transition services in Virginia?

Dr. deFur: I believe that educational reform as it relates to outcome accountability represents the most pressing issue in education today. Educators perceive, and perhaps rightly so, that public policy continues to make greater demands on them in terms of instructional expectations that are both academic and behavioral.  Within this context, we must begin to practice "provention" transition planning, which translates to proactive prevention transition planning.  Provention transition planning would include an effort to develop the skills of self-determination throughout a child's school career and emphasize the need for community transition teams designed to create plans to ensure that adult services are in place when students exit public schools.  Provention planning would address issues such as teen pregnancy, dropout, truancy, drugs, and alcohol.  I believe Virginia has a wealth of talented transition professionals and the leadership to successfully strive for improved educational outcomes for Virginia's students with disabilities.