Founder and CEO, The Transition Academy
Kim Riley is the CEO and founder of The Transition Academy, a Kansas City based non-profit that provides college and career planning resources and support to special education students and their families. In March, 2020 Kim launched ‘Tuesday Talks’, a virtual forum and “safe space” for parents and educators to gather on a weekly basis to discuss obstacles and share solutions related to young adults with special needs.
Why did you start The Transition Academy?
I started The Transition Academy after hitting so many road blocks when trying to help my son land a post-secondary experience. I have been fortunate to obtain an MBA and I still couldn’t figure out who to talk to, where to go, what paperwork to fill out. I kept thinking “if I’m struggling, I can only imagine how frustrated and hopeless other families feel when dealing with this nightmare of a system.”
Your model is “If it doesn’t exist, let’s create it together” – can you talk about what the needs are for serving special education students in Kansas City?
It’s long overdue for students with disabilities to be taken seriously and not treated like burdens or charity cases. For some reason, many schools take a risk-aversion stance with students with disabilities. How would you feel if your dealings with your child’s teacher or school official were based on “What do I have to do to make sure I don’t get sued?” Unfortunately this is the reality for far too many diverse learners. Schools are battle grounds instead of training grounds.
Students with disabilities and their families want, need and deserve an education that prepares them for life – not just one that checks boxes on state assessments. Every step of the journey should involve helping children discover their talents and sharpen their skills in order to be successful after high school.
Tell us more about Tuesday Talks and how they have evolved to meet the needs of families in a COVID-19 era?
Tuesday Talks is an online series for families, schools and disability-serving organizations. The project was launched when COVID hit. There was a huge void. While general ed students and families were given multiple messages of compassion and support, our families were told about state and federal mandates. Once again, all we heard was “this is what we have to do for your child in order to not get sued.”
I decided this was unacceptable and it was up to us to develop our own sacred space. We launched Tuesday Talks to connect Kansas City’s disability community during COVID and beyond. Topics we’ve presented have included: managing challenging behaviors at home during quarantine, how to talk with your child about sex, and testimonials on living and navigating life with a disability.
Your Tuesday Talk on being black and living with autism attracted a national audience. Why is it important for people to learn about these struggles, and where can they learn more?
Race is an explosive topic that we tend to shy away from, yet can’t ignore. The protests following George Floyd’s murder was a moment of reckoning for America as well as those of us who are black and those living with disabilities. The disability community is tone deaf when it comes to the intersection of race and ability. This was evident during the protests when the leading autism organizations issued tepid statements on their racial stances. The messages were downright insulting to black individuals and families. The messages also communicated loud and clear “We would rather straddle the fence and go through the motions instead of standing in solidarity with black families during this national crisis.”
The Transition Academy stepped up and hosted a national dialogue on this topic that attracted attendees from as far away as Massachusetts, North Carolina, Florida, Virginia and Texas. “Out Of The Shadows: Black Families With Autism Speak Out” explained the two worlds black families are forced to navigate daily.
The episode featured insights from parents of black sons from across the nation, a professional development firm for special educators of color, a black autistic man who channeled his fear of being killed by police into a position training officers on interacting with black people with autism and a white self-advocate on how to be an ally.
What is your plan for The Transition Academy in the next 12 months?
I hesitate to give a 12-month plan because the world is constantly changing, which compels us to pivot in order to meet the needs of families. I can say we’re hard at work developing an app to allow students, families, teachers and others to independently explore college, career and life skills program opportunities. This technology is key to taking the power out of institutions’ hands and placing it where it belongs – in the hands of youth and families. We’re also working on online and in-person experiences to explore the post-secondary landscape.
Finally, we’re making sure all of our work is done with, not for, the community we serve. We are very fortunate to be based at Central High School thanks to Principal Anthony Madry, who also serves as The Transition Academy Board Chairman. Working in a high-needs community that serves some of the city’s most marginalized, disenfranchised families is definitely by design. For example, an American Community Survey found 17.8% of 21-64 year old African Americans with cognitive disabilities in Missouri were employed in 2017 compared to 29.2% of their white peers. The impact of black students with disabilities graduating without opportunities is magnified even greater when we consider disabled individuals make up a third to half of all people killed by law enforcement officers. In the 2016 white paper “Disability and Police Violence,” the Treatment Advocacy Center (TAC) noted that 1 in 5 of all inmates have mental illness, and 1 in 10 of all police encounters involved mental illness.
The Transition Academy is firmly committed to eradicating this trend and working with youth and families to achieve their dreams.
Tell us about your exciting event coming up OR Any closing thoughts?
The Transition Academy is hosting a graduation celebration followed by a career fair for special education students on August 7th. To sign up or learn more, visit: https://www.thetransitionacademy.org/