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District 833’s Next Step graduates look to the future

Next Step Transition Program grad Joey Busch proudly displays his diploma Wednesday following the graduation ceremony at the District 833 Program Center. (Bulletin photo by Emily Buss)1 / 6
Next Step grad Gabrielle Lee received her diploma from District 833 School Board member Katy McElwee-Stevens. (Bulletin photo by Emily Buss)2 / 6
Next Step graduate Blake Thielfoldt was one of 17 to complete the Next Step Transition Program. From left, District 833 Superintendent Keith Jacobus, Next Step Director of Special Education Jeff Jorgenson and School Board member Katy McElwee-Stevens handed out diplomas. (Bulletin photo by Emily Buss)3 / 6
Next Step grad Gabrielle Lee and her family pose for a photo following the graduation ceremony last week at the District 833 Program Center in Cottage Grove. (Bulletin photo by Emily Buss)4 / 6
Excited throughout the entire ceremony, Next Step graduate Sonia Gutierrez laughed at a joke made by one of the District 833 officials on hand for the graduation ceremony last week. (Bulletin photo by Emily Buss) 5 / 6
Family and friends attended the Next Step Transition Program graduation ceremony last week at the District 833 Program Center in Cottage Grove. (Bulletin photo by Emily Buss)6 / 6

Sonia Gutierrez almost couldn’t contain her excitement as her full name was announced last week during District 833’s Next Step Transition Program graduation ceremony.

The 21-year-old Mexico City native, along with nine of her classmates, accepted her diploma to thunderous applause from friends and family at the district’s Program Center in Cottage Grove. Seventeen students in all made up the class of 2014.

The Next Step curriculum assists special needs young adults, ages 18 to 21, to prepare for an independent life following high school.

Nancy Meyer, special education supervisor for Next Step, gave opening remarks outlining the students’ yearly performance and applauded the work of her staff in readying the class for their futures.

Throughout the last two years, Meyer said students have been given on-the-job training at Dunn Brothers, Woodbury Church of Christ, Stone Soup Thrift Shop, MK Salon, McDonald’s, Walmart and at the District 833 Program Center.

A partnership with Goodwill/Easter Seals Minnesota was also formed, giving students competitive employment experience. They worked at the sites in Hastings, Woodbury and Eagan, and Meyer said she is “thrilled” to be able to use the new Cottage Grove site beginning this fall.

The YMCA also forged a partnership with the Next Step Program and offers health and wellness incentives to students as part of the PHD (physical, health and diet) program.

“This program was very good for Sonia, for all of us,” said her father, Cesar Gutierrez. “All of the teachers here were so helpful and took their time teaching Sonia.”

Gutierrez said the family emigrated from Mexico City in the late 1990s but settled in Cottage Grove in 2000. Only knowing basic English, the Next Step Program, Gutierrez said, helped both Sonia and her family.

Conrad Lee, whose daughter Gabrielle, 21, also graduated Next Step, said the nurturing environment also provided the necessary social interaction his daughter wanted.

“Most of these students have known each other for years and years and they participate in a lot of the same activities, both in school and outside of school,” he said. “She plays sports, she’s involved in Special Olympics and all of us parents are right alongside them.”

District 833 Superintendent Keith Jacobus attended the ceremony and stressed the importance of a partnership between the school and guardians, and how it positively affects each student's’ life.

“It’s really exciting to watch them as they progress and get ready to move out to the world of new learning and career and college opportunities,” Jacobus said.

For both Sonia and Gabrielle, it’s a short break to plan their next move, most likely into the workforce, their parents said. Lee said his daughter learned many different skills during her three years in the Next Step Program and is eager to use them.

“We’re confident that each of you will have success as you continue with your future plans,” Meyer said. “Honestly, we’re going to miss all of you.”

“What I can tell from this group is they are not going to have a problem making an impact on this world,” added Jeff Jorgenson, director of special education. “They are all rock stars.”