Special Education

Special-Needs Students Gain Workplace Experience

By Christina A. Samuels — July 02, 2013 6 min read
Rayianna Peak, left, and Dashawn Wilson, center, both 19-year-old former students at High Road Upper School, practice on Rayianna's brother, Michael, at Bennett Career Institute, a beauty and barbering school near the school's campus in Washington. High Road School has partnerships with a number of local businesses, including the institute, that provide job skills training to students.
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For students with emotional or behavioral disabilities, navigating the transition from high school to a job or to college can be more daunting than it is even for other students with special needs.

Research suggests that these students have no more trouble than other students finding work after leaving school, but that they often lack the “soft skills” required to stick with employment for the long term.

Specialized Education Services, Inc., a 56-school network in 12 states that educates students with behavioral and learning disabilities who have been placed by their local school districts, is among the organizations attempting to break that cycle.

The network has several schools that have reached out to small businesses in their communities to help provide job experiences for its students. Those businesses have proven willing to provide technical training as well as to offer support in job skills such as punctuality, initiative, and good customer service. The work experiences start when the students are in school, and can continue even after the youths have graduated.

In return, the business owners say they gain enthusiastic trainees, whose past behavioral issues in the classroom seem not to carry over when they’re on a job. And the businesses are also happy to be offering support for local youth.

Gaining Job Skills

Dashawn Wilson, a 19-year-old who graduated from the network’s High Road Upper School, a specialized private day school here, is currently working toward his barber license through a partnership with a nearby barbering and cosmetology school, the Bennett Career Institute.

High Road students, whose tuition is paid for by their home school district, first start getting job skills training as high schoolers. Interested youth can continue full-time after they graduate.

Before enrolling at High Road, “I could get distracted like that,” Mr. Wilson said, snapping his fingers. “Now, nothing can distract me.”

The difference, he said, is that he loves the hands-on learning at the program, and that he’s not just learning skills with clippers. At the institute “they teach you how to go outside this building and be a successful person,” he said.

Rayianna Peak, also a 19-year-old who attended High Road and is now at the barbering and cosmetology school, said she’s been taught “how to carry yourself, how to talk—you can’t be afraid to talk in this business.”

Chet Bennett, the founder and chief executive officer of the institute, said he felt a personal connection with the students’ stories. He graduated from high school with a 1.7 grade point average, but went on to become academically and professionally successful.

“Once we started seeing all the talent that some of these students had, I said, let’s take a chance, because someone took a chance on me,” Mr. Bennett said.

Which is not to say every interaction is perfect. One student was perpetually tardy, to the point where Mr. Bennett was not sure if he would continue in the program. But the student made a turnaround.

“I don’t know what changed him. Now, it’s still a work in progress,” he said. “But I believe, most times, they just want to have someone believe in them.”

Budget Pressures

These types of “community-based instruction” programs are particularly important for student with disabilities, who often struggle with transferring training from one situation to another, said David W. Test, a professor of special education at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and the co-director of the National Secondary Transition Technical Assistance Center. The federally funded center provides resources to states, districts, and schools seeking to bolster their programs to support children with disabilities in postsecondary education and work.

“If you want to teach them on-the-job skills, its best to teach them on the job,” Mr. Test said. “It allows them to experience a connection in school, and to see how it relates to life outside of school.”

Yvonne Ward-Manson, the transition coordinator for the High Road school in the District of Columbia, said she has seen the change in students from a school environment to a work environment.

“A lot of the time, these kids are pretty savvy,” Ms. Ward-Manson said. “They know when they go in a job interview how they should act.”

But such programs have fallen victim to budget cuts in some schools, Mr. Test said. Often, there just aren’t enough people around to support community-based education, or the job of supporting such programs is delegated to a staff member who is already juggling other duties, he said.

Supportive Environment

Small, “mom-and-pop” businesses tend to work well for students with disabilities because the business owners can pay more attention to each of them, said Deanne K. Unruh, a senior research associate at the University of Oregon in Eugene, whose research specialty is at-risk youth involved in the juvenile justice system. She is also the project director of the National Post-School Outcomes Center, another federally funded organization that helps states collect data on what happens to students with disabilities once they leave school.

Plus, teaching students how to be socially appropriate in work settings can translate to other settings, Ms. Unruh said.

A report from the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 that tracked students with disabilities eight years after high school found that about 50 percent of young adults with behavioral disturbances were employed, compared with 67 percent of youths with learning disabilities, 64 percent of students with speech and language impairments, and 64 percent of students with “other health impairments.” That catch-all category can include disabilities such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, diabetes and epilepsy. Disability categories with lower rates of employment eight years after high school include autism (37 percent); orthopedic impairment (35 percent); and deaf-blindness (30 percent).

The High Road School in Providence, R.I., like the one in the District of Columbia, has several partnerships with local businesses. One that has proved popular is a connection to a local chain of restaurants, the Hearth ’n Kettle. Interested students can work both at the restaurant, and at the school’s own “High Road Cafe,” which serves 200 to 250 external customers daily.

When it comes to connecting students with larger businesses, “we can’t get into those bigger places a lot of the time,” said Anthony Clancy, the executive director of the Providence school. “They just say no, or there’s so much bureaucracy and red tape to go through.”

Nora Hixon, the school’s transition coordinator, said that local businesses are invested in the community. “What better way to give back to the community?” she said. In the case of the Hearth ’n Kettle, there’s an additional connection: Steven Hixon the general manager of the restaurant chain, is married to Nora Hixon.

The students working at the restaurant start off cleaning, but those who are interested can move to the prep kitchen, he said. Along the way, they learn about following directions and taking initiative when appropriate.

Behavior problems haven’t really been an issue, Mr. Hixon said. “Most kids see this as an opportunity.”

A version of this article appeared in the July 11, 2013 edition of Education Week as Hands-On Learning for Students With Disabilities

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