PSJA ISD transforms house to teach life-skills to special needs students
PHARR — A house once scheduled to be torn down to become extra parking spaces for a nearby school has been turned into a second home for special needs students in the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo school district, and a place where they learn life skills for adulthood.
“Life skills are typically taught in modified classrooms in the campuses,” PSJA Superintendent Daniel King said. “What we’ve done is taken an actual home to give them a real-world setting for the life skills work, and the students have really taken to that.”
The Learning In Functional Environments home, known as LIFE, is part of the school district’s Pathways Towards Independence program. It aims to provide the students with basic life skills in the classrooms and employable skills through a partnership with South Texas College.
The home was purchased with the intent of demolishing it, King said, but once they saw the space, he said they saw potential in converting it into a teaching home for the students.
About 100 special needs students, ranging in age from 14 to 21, began being bused to the LIFE house last fall from all PSJA ISD high schools on a rotating schedule. There, teachers from different areas — such as agriculture and nutrition — help them develop different skills.
The district held an official ribbon-cutting ceremony for the LIFE house on Friday, when they provided tours of the home to the community.
“Special students can stay in school until they are 21, so imagine eight years in the classroom only,” said Veronica Quintana, director of the Pathways program at PSJA ISD. “The classroom is not conducive to teaching them real world skills like folding laundry, cooking, making their beds.”
Each student has an individualized education plan and goals to meet, Quintana explained, based on a special needs assessment.
The one-acre site provides plenty of room for the program. The garage was transformed into a classroom. Another room was turned into a photography studio, and the rest of the house remains as a familiar house — kitchen, living room, bedroom, bathrooms and a backyard with plenty space.
The students work on everything around the house, from regular household chores, to landscaping, making planters and gardening.
“We didn’t know some of these hidden talents that they have,” Quintana said. “Even parents are coming in and saying that at home they say ‘I can make my own breakfast,’ when they used to be totally dependent on the parents.”
Other districts, including La Joya ISD, have visited the home, Quintana said, and might be considering implementing the model.
The home was purchased for $175,000, King said, and remodeled for about $173,000 to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and accommodate all types of special needs for the students.
So far the rotation schedule has been working, considering the students also need to spend time in the classrooms. But King said they have been thinking of purchasing a second home in the future if needed to make sure all students get the necessary time in the home before leaving the district.
“With all young people we often underestimate what a young person can do,” King said. “What we’ve seen, and what the parents have seen, is that they can do so much more than what people think. … They see this as their home, and it is their home. We are getting great feedback from the parents.”