Gateway to Opportunities: EC School District to Add New Transition Center for Special Education

GATEWAYS program offers students with disabilities, aged 18-21, resources to transition from school life to the workforce

words & photos by Rebecca Mennecke |

WE GOT THE POWER. Women from the Eau Claire Public Schools Foundation and the Eau Claire Area School District participated in a groundbreaking ceremony for the new GATEWAYS transition center for special education on June 10. The new center is slated to open this fall. 

A new special education program in the Eau Claire Area School District aims to offer students with disabilities resources to make a better transition from school to work life. 

“This is what our kids need,” said Mike Johnson, the district’s superintendent, “and it’s something that I think we’re going to be able to celebrate.” 

GATEWAYS – or Grow, Achieve, Transition, Empower, Working At Your Success – will launch this fall, thanks to the Eau Claire Public School Foundation, in an effort to support students with disabilities between the ages of 18-21 adjust to adult life. The program is an extension of pre-existing transition services in the district, which are required nationally by the Individuals with Disabilities Act. 

It's a win for the whole community.

Sarah French

Executive Director, EC Public Schools Foundation

Transition services work to improve the “academic and functional achievement” of individuals with disabilities and facilitate “movement from school to post-school activities,” according to the IDEA website. Annually, the Eau Claire school district serves between 15-25 students in transition services at North and Memorial high schools.

“As you can probably imagine, students in high school – they want to be done after four years,” said Mandy Van Vleet, executive director of special education. “But students that continue to have this need then stay within our high school, and we serve them that way. So imagine being 18, 19, 20, and going to the high school that you already attended for four years.” 

The need for an improved space for a large population of students in transition services, Van Vleet said, sparked the development of the GATEWAYS project, which was approved by the school board in March. The new space will offer opportunities for young adults to take the next step in their lives with more independence – and confidence. 

“Our hopes and dreams for this is that it impacts students in a way that – it changes their life,” Van Vleet said. “It helps them become as independent as possible, and to feel confident as they enter the community … and to feel good about who they are, and who they become.” 

The program will be housed in the East Ridge Center on Hastings Way in Eau Claire, and a ground-breaking ceremony was held June 10. Renovation begins this summer, with an intended completion date of Sept. 1. 

“This project has been a long time coming, and so we are really excited to see it finally, officially come to life,” said Sarah French, executive director of the Eau Claire Public Schools Foundation. 

The school district supports the cost of the lease and construction, though the ECASF relies heavily on fundraising efforts to outfit the space with furniture, appliances, and workplace decor. 

“One of our goals is to make it not feel like a school or look like a school at all,” Van Vleet said. “We wanted it to feel  like they’re going to work – like a place of business. But many of these students don’t have the opportunity to go to college … so we wanted it to feel like a cool place to hang out as an 18 or 19 year old.” 

Programming within the new facility will be individualized to fit each person’s needs or interests, but a wheelchair-accessible kitchen area and bedroom/living room setup aims to teach students core life skills such as cleaning and making a bed. The program also aims to work with area businesses to provide job and internship opportunities.

Instructors with the GATEWAYS program are still finalizing the curriculum, but – as the teachers and school officials can state – it’s a benefit to the area economy, education sector, and overall Chippewa Valley community. 

“It’s a win for the whole community,” French said. 

Find out more info about the GATEWAYS project here