Project Life graduate Karina Arellano prepared to move on to next phase of her life

Wednesday was a special time for Karina Arellano and members of Denair High School’s Project Life team. That was the day that Arellano earned her diploma from special education program, marking a significant milestone on her journey toward independent living.

Arellano is not a typical high school student. She is 22 years old. She has been part of the Project Life program since its inception at Denair High in 2018. Project Life is a focused effort to teach important skills to students with intellectual or developmental disabilities who often are dismissed as unemployable. 

“We want to teach them to be as independent as possible,” said lead teacher Renee Hall.

Currently, 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. That’s the phase Arellano just completed.

Her next move will be to attend Continuum College in Turlock, which serves developmentally disabled adults in Stanislaus and Merced counties. One of the ongoing goals for Arellano is to be able to confidently access public transportation from Denair – where she lives with her parents – to Turlock.

Getting on a bus, being able to order and pay for food at a restaurant or holding down a job are exactly the kind of independent living skills Project Life was created to teach. Arellano, for instance, has worked at the Denair Market, Pet Supply, Turlock Feed and the Stanislaus County Fairgrounds as well as the Coffee Cart at Denair High.

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.

Arellano’s graduation ceremony was held in the district’s board room and attended by her family, friends, teachers and other school district officials. There were plenty of smiles – and even a few tears – as she was awarded her diploma.

“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.”

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