Independence Academy adds site at children’s zoo

The mission of the Lincoln Public Schools Independence Academy is to prepare special education students ages 18-21 for a positive transition into adult living.

One thing there was no preparing these students for was their excitement about one of the program’s new sites this school year: the Lincoln Children’s Zoo.

“They love it. They’re having such a great time,” said special education teacher Alysia Smith.

The new site is the latest result of a longtime partnership between LPS and the zoo, which also has hosted the LPS Science Focus Program for more than 20 years.

“We have a long, long history of great collaboration, so when LPS reached out to us, we said absolutely, we’re a great place for students to learn skills and grow,” said John Chapo, the zoo’s president and CEO.

Independence Academy students take on a wide variety of tasks at the zoo, including grooming goats, weeding and mulching, and hanging lights for the annual holiday light show.

“They get a sense of pride that they are completing jobs that everybody else is doing,” Smith said. “They're working alongside their peers, they're working alongside people without disabilities, and they are doing such wonderful work. They feel such pride and ownership.”

In the future, Science Focus Program students will serve as mentors and work with Independence Academy students. Some already feel a connection - multiple Science Focus Program students have siblings who are part of the Independence Academy.

“I know that peer-to-peer interaction will be a great benefit to the students of the Science Focus Program and the Independence Academy,” said James Blake, LPS director of strategic initiatives and focus programs.

“There’s just so much opportunity here for the students,” Smith added.

More about the Independence Academy: The Lincoln Public Schools Independence Academy - formerly known as the Vocational Opportunity in Community Experience (VOICE) program - primarily serves special education students ages 18-21. The mission of the Independence Academy is to help students with disabilities gain the skills and connections they need to facilitate a positive transition into adult living. The program started more than 25 years ago and currently serves 122 students. The program’s goal is for students to learn about independence, career development, developing self and academics. They gain community-based work and life experience at various sites throughout Lincoln, including the Lincoln Children’s Zoo, The Bay, Embassy Suites, The Career Academy at Southeast Community College and Food Bank of Lincoln.

Published: August 27, 2020, Updated: September 2, 2020