July/August 2015

Jennifer Bialobok is community relations coordinator for Lyons Township High School District 204 in LaGrange and Western Springs.

Vocation training in high school can take many different forms for many different students. The auto shop may be a catalyst for a career as a mechanic. A computer-programming course may pave the way for a student to be certified in Microsoft Systems. For another, a school-run coffee shop may serve as the training ground for a career in the service industry.

For students in special education, providing vocational training can be extra challenging, but even more critical for the student and his or her future.

According to Paul Shattuck, research program area leader in Life Course Outcomes at Drexel University, “80 percent of young adults with autism between the ages of 19 and 30 are still living at home with their parents and 90 percent of those are either unemployed or underemployed, regardless of IQ or education level.”

In 2009, Lyons Township High School District 204 began its Transition Program to serve students 18- to 22-years-old with various disabilities or abilities. These students have met requirements for graduation, yet continue to receive training in one or more of the following areas: independent living, recreation/community access, and work experience. The Transition Program offers a continuum of services in an authentic setting with meaningful practice and application of a full spectrum of independent living and vocational skills.

Transition Perks, in downtown Western Springs, is such a setting. This coffee shop is open every school day morning. Students learn measurable skills focusing on social interactions, communication, money, inventory, and marketing — all of which are transferable when they apply for competitive paying jobs. The same is true for LT’s Transition Garden, a district-owned quarter-acre plot cultivated and cared for by Transition Program students. Produce from the garden is sold at the local farmers’ market and to local restaurants.

A coffee shop and a neighborhood garden are about much more than brewing a cup of coffee or harvesting a bushel of tomatoes. The marketable skills these students are practicing and mastering will help them secure gainful employment when their time in the program concludes. These programs are beneficial for any student, but designed for students in the Special Education Transitional Program, they take on even more meaning.

Not every district has the opportunity or means to open a coffee shop or start a community garden. However, every district can consider providing opportunities for transition students to hone skills necessary to become adults capable of independent living and gainful employment.

The Transition Perks coffee shop began as an in-school coffee delivery service. Students in the Severe and Profound Special Education Program would take coffee orders from staff, brew, and deliver coffee throughout the morning. Interacting with staff, making change, and keeping track of inventory are measurable skills, critical for life after school. This small-scale endeavor could be replicated in any school. To build the Transitional Garden, LT students grow seedlings that they transplant into their quarter-acre garden. A school without space or resources for a full-scale garden could plant the seeds and feed, water and care for the plants, ultimately selling or giving them away. Students can design and laminate bookmarks, decoupage the school logo onto a coaster, press flowers and make greeting cards — there are an endless number of micro-business possibilities, all of which can be tailored to skill levels and needs of students. The finished product is irrelevant; the skills utilized are what matters. Knowing a potential worker can work with money, keep track of inventory, and see a task completed from start to finish are abilities that employers look for.

Students working at Transition Perks were required to complete a job application and apply to work as baristas or janitorial crew. School districts considering such a program can orchestrate a mock job fair, where school board members serve as interviewers. This would make for an excellent real-world experience. Likewise, creating opportunities for special education students to interact with local businesses is ideal for practicing social skills. Sometimes, “soft” skills are equally important to employers as task-related skills. Teaching students how to make eye contact; recognize appropriate voice levels and tone; and even do tasks most take for granted, such as punching a time clock, socializing in a break room, or navigating public transportation to and from work; are skills that can and should be incorporated into post-school planning.

School board members can encourage administrators and teachers to incorporate real-world applications into everyday instruction and discuss how the skills being taught are used in occupations of high interest to students. Board members and other community leaders could serve as guest speakers to discuss various careers with students and the skills required for those careers.

Work is essential and provides a sense of worth and accomplishment for most people. Unfortunately, a disproportionate number of students with disabilities do not successfully transition to the working world and do not experience steady, satisfying, or gainful employment. By focusing time and resources on vocational training, with a comprehensive approach to both classroom and real world settings in order for all students to become independent, schools can help all students become productive and contributing members of their communities.