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Heather Raithel is Utah Virtual Academy‘s (UTVA) Special Education program Transition Coordinator. Heather was recently named 2017 Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) Graduate Student of the Year!

“I am so excited to be a part of a school that makes the successful transition to adult life for students with disabilities a major priority,” Heather said. “We have an amazing group of special educators that are dedicated to improving post-school outcomes for our students. It is great that not only am I being recognized, but the work that our school teachers and staff do every day is being recognized.  I was truly honored that my colleagues nominated me and felt me worthy of this honor.”

This is Heather’s third year as the Transition Coordinator for UTVA. Her supervisor, Tabitha Pacheco and multiple co-workers nominated her for this award and the win came as a surprise.

“I was unaware until I received the email from the CEC that I was receiving this award,” Heather said. “It was such a wonderful surprise to know that the incredible people I work with took the time to nominate me!”

The Outstanding Graduate Student Award recognizes a CEC student member who makes outstanding contributions to CEC and to exceptional children and youth. Heather is in her second year of her master’s program at Utah State University, where she studies special education with an emphasis on the transition to adulthood for students with disabilities.

UTVA has a large and well-organized special education department. Three years ago, the school saw a need to improve the transition program and then created a position specifically dedicated to the transitioning process.

“UTVA trains all special educators to support the transition to adulthood from kindergarten to post-high,” Heather said. “We have also had a school-wide initiative to include students in advocating for themselves at their own IEPs with great success.  Our state post school outcomes data has greatly improved along with our compliance and data collection.”

Heather is UTVA’s first Transition Coordinator. She has been able to put the information she has learned from her graduate program at Utah State to use in real-life situations.

“I was able to take the information gleaned from my graduate program and put effective, research-based practices into place immediately for the benefit of our students,” Heather said. “UTVA allowed me a great deal of autonomy, trust, and support in making improvements to the transition services we offer to our students.”

Heather explains the transition into adulthood can be a difficult time for students with disabilities, their families, and teachers. She feels it is imperative that educators, schools, families, and transition agencies work closely together to support individuals with disabilities.

“I am so thankful that I work in a school that is not only cutting-edge in providing an excellent education for students with special needs, but has consistently supported me and our staff in improving positive post-school outcomes for our students,” Heather said. “We have truly been able to be leaders in adapting transition best practice to the virtual environment.”

Check out Heather’s 2017 CEC Graduate Student of the Year recognition video here.

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