The Denair Unified School District’s board room played host to a unique, early-in-the-year graduation ceremony this week for student Karina Arellano. Arellano, 22, earned her diploma from Denair High School’s Project Life special education program — a focused effort to teach important skills to students with intellectual or developmental disabilities who often are dismissed as unemployable.
Arellano has been part of the Project Life program since its inception at Denair High in 2018. Her graduation ceremony was attended by her family, friends, teachers and other school district officials. It marked a significant milestone on her journey toward independent living.
“We want to teach them to be as independent as possible,” said lead teacher Renee Hall.
Arellano has already gained crucial real-world experiences after having worked at the Denair Market, Pet Supply, Turlock Feed, the Stanislaus County Fairgrounds and the Coffee Cart at Denair High. Her next move will be to attend Continuum College in Turlock, which serves developmentally disabled adults in Stanislaus and Merced counties. One of her ongoing goals is to be able to confidently access public transportation from Denair – where she lives with her parents – to Turlock.
The chance to hone their job skills across various settings at local businesses is one of the practical benefits of Project Life, said DHS Principal Breanne Aguiar.
“These on-the-job experiences provide students with real-life lessons and job skills training that promote independence, responsibility and employability,” she said.
According to the school district, there are 21 special education students enrolled in the Project Life program, which spans grades 6-12. Another seven students ages 18 to 22 are part of the adult transition program, which is the phase Arellano recently completed.
“I have been Karina’s teacher for five years,” Hall said. “I have had the privilege of watching her grow into the young lady she is today. My staff and I are so proud of how far she has come in our program. … We will miss Karina as she moves on to the next chapter of her life, but she will always be a part of the Project Life family.”
— The Denair Pulse contributed to this report.