By Andrea Lynn The uncertain future millions of high school students face each year - marked by unemployment, underemployment and lack of independence - soon may become a thing of the past, thanks to a major national effort getting under way in Illinois. The UI Transition Research Institute has been awarded a multimillion-dollar grant to begin promoting the successful transition of non-college-bound youths, including those with disabilities, from high school to mainstream society. Instead of spinning their wheels or coming to dead-ends after high school graduation, non-college-bound students across the country should begin "achieving gainful employment, furthering their education and training, and living independently" as a result of the efforts of the new National Transition Alliance for Youths With Disabilities, says alliance director Frank Rusch. Approximately 50 percent of all students without disabilities and about 90 percent of students with disabilities are not headed for college, but for an "uncertain future," Rusch said. To reach these students, Transition Alliance members will focus their efforts over the next five years on students' entire high school experience. In some states, more than 50 percent of all students with disabilities leave school before they are 18 years old, "completely unprepared for the challenges of young adulthood," Rusch said. The six-member Transition Alliance, designed to "provide the framework for improving transition systems for youth," is being supported by a five-year, $5.85 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education. Rusch is a professor of special education at the UI and long-term director of the Transition Research Institute in the UI College of Education. Transition Alliance members in addition to the Transition Research Institute at Illinois are the Academy for Educational Development, Council of Chief State School Officers, National Alliance of Business, National Association of State Directors of Special Education, and the National Transition Network at the University of Minnesota. Sen. Paul Simon, D-Ill., pushed for approval of the grant. Simon was the main Senate sponsor of the School-to-Work Opportunities Act, which became law in 1994. Faculty of the Transition Research Institute will serve as the Transition Alliance's technical assistance team for state and local groups involved in planning and implementing programs and services for targeted youth. Their first effort will be to identify leadership personnel in each of the 50 states who can "join in discussions about adolescent and young adults' goals, their expectations for these youth, and the procedures that they believe are important to begin to design a service delivery system effective for everyone," Rusch said. "This is a breakthrough for the 'forgotten half' of our students who don't go on to college," Simon said. "This will forge new approaches for school-to-work transition drawing from educators who understand the needs of students in both mainstream and 'special education' settings." The Transition Research Institute at Illinois has been conducting research in the area of transition for the past decade. The new award, in fact, comes on the tail end of 10 years of continuous funding, totaling about $10 million, by the U.S. Department of Education. The grant is the largest the UI College of Education has received. "That says a lot about the importance that the Department of Education is placing on this particular initiative and the problems facing young people today," Rusch said. The timing couldn't be better for the alliance, Rusch said, since the national stage "has been set" with four recent federal statutory acts: the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act Amendments of 1990; the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1992; the School-to-Work Opportunities Act of 1994; and the Carl D. Perkins Vocational Education and Applied Technology Act of 1990. These acts, combined with the intentions of Goals 2000 (the Educate America Act that authorizes a range of initiatives for federal support of education reform), "seek to promote coherent, nationwide, systematic reform in the way we educate our children and youth," Rusch said. More than $300 million already has been allocated under the Simon program to states to begin developing a variety of school-to-work opportunities for young adults; Michigan, for example, last year received $11 million. The Transition Alliance will assist in the planning and development activities of states such as Michigan and "attempt to make sure that they can benefit from the progress that is made throughout the United States in beginning to adopt the best practices to serve their students," Rusch said. The new grant draws attention to "the implied collaboration necessary between the regular and the special educational communities," he said. "We must begin to recognize each other's efforts and to develop a system that serves all students. We must begin to think of special education as an integral part of mainstream education and begin to challenge any and all efforts that continue to focus on segregating special education as something unique and different." Larry Faulkner, vice chancellor for academic affairs and provost at the UI, said of the new grant: "This investment in the Transition Alliance expresses very high continued confidence in the excellent work that has proceeded at Illinois for years under the leadership of Frank Rusch. At the heart of the program is a focus on evaluating and improving the performance of educational activities, a topic at the fore of the national interest." Mildred Griggs, dean of the UI College of Education, called the program "a strong affirmation" of past work conducted at the Transition Research Institute. Rusch formed the Transition Research Institute at the UI in 1985. He and his colleagues have conducted a large number of intervention, evaluation and policy studies aimed at improving the outcomes for individuals with disabilities. The new grant began Oct. 1 and will continue through September 2000.