Pathways to Success: Empowering Youth With Disabilities After High School

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In this case study, we explore how 2023 EALA New Champion and Transition Academy founder Kim Riley is pioneering innovative pathways to college and career readiness for students with disabilities. 


Transforming Futures

Kim Riley’s journey began in 2018 when she became frustrated with the limited options available for her son’s transition into adulthood. Determined to create change, she established The Transition Academy (TTA), a disability college and career preparation organization based in Kansas City, Missouri. 

“We as a society go to bat for the transition success of other marginalized populations, such as youth aging out of foster care. For some reason, youth with disabilities are left on their own,” explains Riley. “I decided to do my part to change these dynamics.” 


Partnering for Success

Individuals with disabilities, and especially young people of color, encounter significant challenges in accessing post-secondary education and career opportunities. By partnering with local high schools, TTA aims to make economic inclusion a reality for youth with disabilities.

In 2023, TTA served 220 Kansas City students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), with a focus on helping these students secure jobs while still in school. Central to TTA’s impact are its strong partnerships with stakeholders across sectors, including community organizations and philanthropic foundations. 

These collaborations enhance TTA’s programs and ensure that students with disabilities receive comprehensive support and pathways to meaningful employment. “Our strategy is partnering with the right organizations to train and connect youth with disabilities for employment success,” says Riley. 

Riley and her team work closely with teachers within their program and surrounding districts. Through these partnerships, Riley has gained a profound appreciation for educators and their role in the success of students with disabilities. “Teachers are rock

stars,” Riley says. “They go to great lengths to ensure their students are successful despite being bombarded with compliance requirements and other challenges.” 


Multiplying Impact

As part of its broader efforts to promote equity and inclusion, Riley and her team created the first-ever 2023 State of Youth With Disabilities in Jackson County Report. This report breaks down the data and highlights areas that must be addressed so students do not fall through the cracks.

“One of the findings was that we are based in the epicenter of the highest density of youth with IEPs in Jackson County,” explains Riley. “Kansas City Public Schools and charter schools serve 2,653 students with IEPs compared to the suburban school district with the highest number of students enrolled with IEPs: 1,682.” 

TTA also hosted its first-ever Community Stakeholders Luncheon in 2023, which attracted about 20 funders, including the Kauffman Foundation and United Way. By fostering networking opportunities among attendees, the luncheon provided a platform to exchange ideas and improve TTA’s community strategy for supporting youth with disabilities. 

At the luncheon, Riley’s team also announced their Excellence In Action campaign, which will include local and national tours of best-in-class transition programs and schools in 2024 and 2025. 


Leveraging EALA’s New Champion Fund

Though Riley and her team have seen many successes throughout 2023, their goals continue beyond there. Looking ahead, Riley’s team will incorporate research from the Excellence in Action school visits to design a real-world learning charter high school, which they anticipate opening in Fall 2027. Riley notes that the grant from EALA’s New Champion award will help support this work. 

EALA’s New Champion Fund grants an annual unrestricted competitive sub-grant and year-long mentorship to support leaders of color, or allies of the equity in education movement, who are actively working to support students with disabilities, including students who are also marginalized, come from underserved communities, or experience poverty. 

According to Riley, receiving the New Champion award serves as powerful validation of TTA’s mission and approach. “Being a New Champion affirmed the validity of the charter school concept as well as my ability to lead this ambitious endeavor.”  


Big Takeaways

Riley underscored the urgent need for innovative solutions to address the challenges faced by students with disabilities in transitioning to employment. “America’s disability employment record is abysmal. Last year was a record-breaking year with 21% of people with disabilities employed. Everyone is trying to figure out transition,” she explains. “Do not dismiss your abilities and vision. If you have a solution, give it a shot. Our kids need people who are committed to them to design solutions for their success.”

Next steps for The Transition Academy

Launching a real-world learning charter high school for students with disabilities is a huge endeavor. Riley is building her board of directors and working to execute a capital campaign. “This is new territory for me, but I just share my vision with other like-minded individuals and move forward with determination.”

About The Author


Kim Riley, a social entrepreneur based in Kansas City, Missouri, founded The Transition Academy (TTA) in 2019 to address the complex postsecondary preparation process for students with disabilities. With over 20 years of experience in disability advocacy, Kim has spearheaded initiatives like the Kansas City Walk For Autism Awareness and served on the Mayor’s Committee for People With Disabilities. She holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Missouri and an Executive MBA from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Recognized nationally for her advocacy work, Kim received accolades such as the Surge Institute’s Alumni Ambassador of the Year and the Educating All Learners Alliance 2023 New Champion award. Committed to equity and liberation, Kim collaborates across sectors to create sustainable systems for all individuals, regardless of race/ethnicity and ability, to thrive as contributing members of society.

The Transition Academy

The Transition Academy (TTA) is a disability college and career preparation organization based in Kansas City, Missouri. We partner with high schools  to make economic inclusion a reality for youth with disabilities in the Kansas City area, especially for young people of color who have historically been failed by systems.