Penn Graduate School of Education’s VAST Life Program Is Life Changing

On four Saturdays this spring, Sharon Thomas has made the hour-long drive from Hatboro to the University of Pennsylvania with a strong sense of urgency and hope.

Her son, Kyle, has autism and is 19. She worries that he only has one more year of high school and little more than a year before he turns 21 and the state considers him an adult. Kyle is enrolled in the VAST Life program offered through Penn’s Graduate School of Education. For Thomas, the free program, which meets one Saturday a month for six hours, January through May, has become a lifeline.

“I’m learning on the fly,” says Thomas, “Kyle is my only child and I’ve had to be very proactive seeking services. Now I’m facing the question, what next? What happens after he leaves school and a lot of the services and support are no longer there? Sometimes something as simple as ordering a slice of pizza sends him into a panic.

For him it is about practice, practice, practice; he needs to do things over and over again. I want to give Kyle every opportunity to be as independent as he can be.”

Transitioning is a big part of the goal of Penn GSE’s VAST Life, which stands for Vocational Academic Social Transition Life Skill Independent Functional Experiences. The program pairs high school students, who are aged 14-19 and have significant developmental and intellectual disabilities, with Penn graduate students who are working towards master’s of education degrees and special education certification in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

For Kyle and the 25 other VAST Life teens, the program’s cultural activities and lessons in life skills are aimed at helping them navigate the journey to more independence as they reach adulthood. When they complete the program, Thomas and the other families each will have a conference with a VAST Life teacher. They will receive a transitional assessment to help them better understand the potential, and the limitations, of their child’s abilities in the areas of social, vocational and life skills.

For Chellsee Lee, the Penn GSE student paired with Kyle, VAST Life offers her and her peers the opportunity to work one on one with an adolescent identified by the United States Department of Education as “low-incidence.” The term refers to students who have moderate to severe intellectual disabilities and other impairments requiring skilled intervention. Currently this accounts for about 2-3 percent of the U.S. population.

Lee is one of 150 students currently enrolled in the Penn GSE Teach for America program and one of 54 pursuing the special education track or strand. The Penn GSE TFA partnership mirrors Teach for America’s national program, which requires corps members to pursue certification or an advanced degree during their two-year teaching placement in high-needs schools. TFA works to recruit and support new teachers like Lee to expand educational opportunities for students.


This month, Lee will complete her master’s degree in urban education. As a Teach for America corps member, she teaches full time in New Media Technology Charter School in North Philadelphia. TFA placed Lee in the special education track in the region. After graduation, she plans to return to her native California where, next fall, she is set to start a teaching job at KIPP San Francisco Bay Academy as a middle school special education teacher.

Lee says, “While I did not get to choose special education, I am incredibly grateful that it was chosen for me and for my life. The strongest relationships I have built in my school are with my students with autism.”

Since January, like the other 24 pairs of GSE students and teens in VAST Life, Lee has accompanied Kyle on excursions that have included a performance of “Twelfth Night” by the Royal Shakespeare Company at Annenberg Live, trips to the Franklin Institute and Reading Terminal Market and activities like bowling, navigating the Philadelphia public transportation system, making a purchase at the Penn Bookstore and ordering lunch.

Looking back at these excursions Lee says, “I have learned that I take advantage of the small interactions I have with the world every day. My world is easy to navigate; it is friendly to me and allows me to do whatever I want. Kyle's world is more complicated and presents challenges that we would never even think of as obstacles. Kyle is persistent and works through these challenges and always wants to know how to overcome. That is what makes Kyle special, he overcomes, not always immediately, and definitely not easily, but he overcomes.” 

“The Penn GSE Teach for America corps is unique,” says Mary Del Savio, director of Penn GSE’s TFA MSEd and certification program. “Corps members who sign on to teach for a minimum of two years in the Philadelphia region have the distinction of being the only corps members to sign on to an Ivy League education. Our coursework and curriculum is modeled off the traditional teacher education program, and our principles are closely aligned. Both GSE programs emphasize an inquiry approach to classroom practice and a commitment to equity and social justice.”

The Penn GSE TFA program admitted its first special education cohort in 2011. Now, five years on, VAST Life has become a key component in helping the Penn GSE TFA students prepare for the rigors of special education.

Five year’s ago VAST Life’s creator, Heather Hopkins, Penn GSE TFA special education strand leader, was tasked with developing a special education certificate curriculum that would meet Pennsylvania’s stringent new criteria. Figuring out how to give Penn GSE TFA students more time with school-aged students with low-incidence disabilities in preparation for certification was not an option; it was a requirement.

“The problem,” says Hopkins, “was that Teach for America students are already teaching in the classroom, unlike traditional graduate students in education who do their coursework first then follow with their fieldwork. We have teachers who are teaching in the classroom and taking courses on weekends.”

Hopkins, a special education specialist who earned her doctorate from Penn GSE, says the beauty of VAST Life is that it provides the GSE students with the practical experience they need and “that we were able to take the whole mentality of Penn in giving back to the community. We give these families and adolescents five Saturdays of learning a lot of life skills, like transportation, pedestrian safety, what it takes to sort and buy items, what it takes to do errands, what it takes to socialize appropriately all of those kind of basic life-transitional skills. The program has real impact.”

In the 10-year partnership between Penn GSE TFA, the program has graduated more than 1,000 teachers, many of whom continue to teach in the Philadelphia School District and the Greater Philadelphia, Camden and Trenton regions. TFA estimates it has 1,300 alumni now working in education right in Philadelphia.

Penn GSE TFA student Sabrina Leggett has been asked to continue on as a special education teacher at the Global Leadership Academy Charter School in West Philadelphia, the school where she’s a TFA corps member.

She says VAST Life and working with Josie, an outgoing 19-year old from Olney High School who has motor neural and intellectual disabilities, have “further solidified for me the concept that everyone can learn and every bit of progress should be celebrated.”

“Josie,” says Leggett, “is very friendly and caring and has a huge heart. I've learned how to modify tasks for students with low-incidence disabilities and to not take for granted what someone is able to do. Tying shoes or using a debit card is something that I believe people with neuro-typical abilities take for granted.

“When I first started, I was nervous and thought I was unprepared and wouldn't know what to do. But I've learned not to doubt my abilities.”

That confidence is something that is mentored by Hopkins whose energy and passion for special education is contagious. It also points to her experience in the field. In addition to her role at Penn GSE, she is a full time special education teacher at Council Rock High School South, Holland, Pa.

Each VAST Life session kicks off at 9 a.m. as Hopkins greets Penn GSE alumni, who return to volunteer in assisting in the day’s activities, and welcomes the Penn GSE students who settle in for an hour of instruction before the teens arrive. At one point, Hopkins breaks out into a verse of “Let It Go” from “Frozen,” exhibiting a tactic she’d used last year to calm a teen in crisis.

Hopkins encourages the students to use their iPads to document the day’s activities to include in their final report to parents.

“Remember,” she says, “you are going to help the parents see their child in a very different way. The mundane is special for these families. Seeing their child interact and get on a trolley or buy a ticket is inspiring to them. They are used to getting medical reports; you’re going to share with them how their child functions socially in the community. Think about how you can bring joy to something that is not always joyous.”

Discussing Josie’s transition plan, Leggett says, “I am most looking forward to sharing the progress that I've seen Josie make with holding a conversation, something that he told me he wanted to work on.”  

As the 25 teens begin gathering in the appointed room in Huntsman Hall to join their VAST Life GSE teachers, the volume increased. There is good-natured teasing, excitement and lots of smiles. Two of the teens share the previous night’s prom pictures; there are discussions about what to order for lunch. Transit tokens and gift cards are passed out, and smaller groups start to split off and make plans for the day. Teens and their teachers huddle over transit maps and schedules as the teens plan their routes.

Chloe Brown is paired with Yasom, a social yet shy 20-year-old who attends South Philadelphia High School. He has intellectual disabilities and autism. 

Like Leggett, Brown has been offered a contract extending her position as a special education teacher at Mastery Charter Schools’ Shoemaker Campus in West Philadelphia, where she’s a TFA corps member.

Through the special education courses and VAST Life program at Penn GSE, Brown says, “I’ve learned a great deal about disabilities in general and how this affects someone’s life. There are few courses that go so directly to what you are going to do. It is real, not theoretical. Heather shows how the impact of what you are doing now has a huge impact on whether these kids become successful adults and seeing them as they might be at 50 years old.”

Brown is interested in education policy and says, “I’ve always been a part of the conversation about education and equity. Being a teacher has been a humbling and rewarding experience. Forging change is exciting.”

For Lee, Leggett and Brown, Penn GSE’s VAST Life program has helped forge that change, helping them make the journey from TFA corps members to certified special education teachers with master’s degrees in urban education.

For Kyle, Josie and Yasom, the skills they are working on over the five Saturdays in VAST Life will serve to inform them and their families as they transition from teens to adults.

When asked about life after high school, Yasom smiles and says, “I think I’m going to work as a nursing assistant for a few years. But I like acting, so I might try that.”

After a pause he says, “I don’t know; I’ve got my whole life ahead of me. I have a plan A; if it does not work out, I have a plan B.”

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