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Hands-on: Special education students learn life skills, confidence through jobs

Hands-on: Special education students learn life skills, confidence through jobs

December 6th, 2015 by Jennifer Middleton in Texarkana News

Montray Biddle, a student at Arkansas High School, refills ice Thursday at Big Jake's Bar-B-Que on Arkansas Boulevard. Montray works at the restaurant as part of a school program that helps students prepare for the future.

Photo by Joshua Boucher /Texarkana Gazette.

You've noticed their smile, their grace, their sparkle as they load groceries in your cart or clean your table after lunch. That little extra gleam in their eye, one of happiness and job satisfaction.

That shine comes from knowing they have a future.

Special education students from Arkansas High School are spread throughout the community, learning life skills and earning money in part-time jobs through a unique transition program.

Transition Coordinator Kim Miller is the mother hen to all 40 students and gets hands-on in making sure they feel they can tackle the demands a workplace can bring.

"When they start a job she will often put on that Chick-Fil-A uniform and she will go to work with them for the first few days," said Sherry Young, director of special services. "She will empty the trash, she will wipe tables. She will do whatever it takes to teach them that job before she leaves."

At the beginning of the school year, Miller was in a classroom teaching transition skills, but not to the degree she is now, working alongside the students, helping them create their own confidence.

"I help transition them out into the work force according to their transition plan and then I help them learn their job," Miller said. "And so I put on the uniform and I just dig right in and I job coach them and job train them and I don't let them leave my sight until they are ready to soar."

That trusted relationship and encouragement is a building block for them, she said, as many were frustrated at not being successful in traditional classroom environments.

"First of all, they are reassured by me that they can do it," Miller said. "Because you have to have that relationship with your students to know how to transition them into a job. And it gives them that comfort that they trust me, that when I leave them they are confident they can carry on their job duties."

Previously, the transition classes for special education students at Arkansas High have included job-readiness skills. Administrators agree this year's change is due to putting ideas into action.

"It's a vision and a goal I've had in knowing that there is a life beyond school for these students, that they've got to be prepared for what's next," Young said. "That not all students are going to go to college. These students have to be prepared for what's next."

As a courtesy clerk at Albertson's, 17-year-old Tabitha Whitfield gathers carts from the parking lot, fills grocery bags and takes them to customer's vehicles. She's learning job skills, true, but she said she's also learning something many take for granted.

"I learned relationships and teamwork," Tabitha said, "and I really learned how to trust people, 'cause that tends to be hard for me sometimes. Really learning how to leave problems at the door and not bring stuff into your work."

LaJohnny Washington has been working at Chick-Fil-A since October as a dining room facilitator. The 16-year-old wants to be a security officer someday, and is practicing those courtesy skills at his job.

"When I see people that's walking on a cane and stuff, walking into the restaurant, I also go out there and stop traffic and help them come inside the door so people won't hit them," he said, smiling. "I also show them a good time and help them out and they also leave me a tip on the table, just for helping."

Young said those are skills that cannot be taught in a classroom, that guiding these students to their dreams directly involves active participation by the student.

"We've made that commitment that we don't want any student to leave here that's not prepared for something, whatever their goals, that we're not going to let them leave here," she said.

Since August, Montray Biddle has worked in the dining room at Big Jake's Bar-B-Que, clearing tables and loading ice into the drink station. Store manager Cody Eaves said Montray's superior performance has earned him a promotion to food prep and he's looking forward to seeing how far the hard-working young man will go in life.

"He's a good kid. He's doing an excellent job," Eaves said. "Comes in and does his work. He doesn't complain, gets along with everybody, everybody likes him."

To transition into prepping the plates, Montray will be required to learn different types of meat, vegetables and the various weights of the meat. That's where Miller steps in.

"In order to be promoted, we're going to have to look at some more difficult level words and so we're working together," Miller said. "He's going to give me the words in order to transition Montray into his promotion and then we're in the occupation prep class, that's what we're going to be working on to fill that transition to the next level."

Eaves said Montray earned his spot in the kitchen with his hard work and dedication.

"It's always good having a strong employee, somebody you can count on, somebody you don't have to watch after to do their work," he said. "He's got good character, and he showed that when we interviewed him."

AHS Principal Eva Nadeau said she's seen that hope in her hallways, with these special education students feeling the value of their contributions.

"It's really changing the culture," Nadeau said."I see kids who are self confident. I see kids who feel empowered to reach out. They're making new friendships, doing things that they they just feel confident now, they never had that much before. I watch them, they're empowered now to ask for their learning."

There are two components to the program, the occupational preparation program, which is preparing Montray, Tabitha and LaJohnny for life after high school, and the community-based instruction program, which teaches life skills like time management and counting money.

Students in this component run "A Taste of Hog Heaven" at AHS, Young said, and with it, they are getting experience they won't learn by sitting in a classroom.

"They take orders each morning for coffee and hot chocolate and that requires them to go to the grocery store to make purchases which includes money, which includes them coming back, making the coffee, making the hot chocolate, delivering that to the teachers, which requires an abundance of skills from them," she said.

Twice a month they also prepare lunch for the teachers after taking those orders, which involves shopping, using coupons, preparing, measuring and cooking the meals—the hands-on skills students need to be successful in life, Young said.

With the help of their state transition consultant, Lisa Washington, Young and Miller presented AHS's program at the state level last week during the Arkansas Transition Cadre. While there, there were then asked to present it to the state board and at the Arkansas Transition Summit in October 2016.

"While it's a ways down the road, we're excited because we know we will have expanded our program even more by then," Young said.

Washington gives credit for the program's success to the administration's willingness to think outside the box to reach these students who might have otherwise fallen through the cracks.

"They are crossing lines and boundaries in who they are able to reach," she said. "I think it is the change in mindset from teachers, administration, students, parents. It's a true change of mindset that everybody has."

During her teaching career, Washington said she saw special education students whom she felt really didn't have a hand up in life and didn't have the skills or trust to take the one offered to them in a classroom.

"They give these kids an opportunity, they give them a chance," she said. "It's not an experiment. This has become their way of life."