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By Jim Paterson
Jim Paterson is an education writer living in Lewes, DE.
When Tracy Stauffer shuffles through the stack of positive comments about her district’s program that provides paying jobs in schools for students with disabilities, one concept seems to repeatedly come up. Amidst all the talk about the benefits of job training and “preparation for the real world,” the students and their supervisors talk about relationships.
As director of special education and pupil services at West York Area SD, Stauffer sees plenty of practical benefits to the program that places her students in state-funded jobs three days a week for part of the day to assist in food services, maintenance and custodial jobs.
“It pays off in so many ways,” she says, noting that students come to better understand what work involves. “A kitchen, for instance, is the fast-paced, noisy environment. It is different than a school classroom. Working there isn’t easy, but they need to know what a real job feels like.”
Like other program managers statewide who operate similar transition programs, she notes that their performance in the classroom often improves when special needs students have one of these positions, and the school, in turn, learns from their supervisors about gaps the student may need to fill in academic or personal skills. The school also gains valuable workers in critical spots where they are needed, their salaries funded by the state Department of Labor and Industry’s Office of Vocational Rehabilitation.
But when she reads comments from supervisors and students who praise the work of the students, they also describe the value in developing relationships. “We have gotten so much out of getting to know them,” one kitchen manager said. One student told a local newspaper about how much she learned, but also how happy she was to go to work because of the connections she made with the people in the kitchen where she was employed.
Often, experts say, students in these positions develop new types of relationships and a different self-image when they have jobs in real work situations, and it often helps their employers and the public they interact with see them differently.
And those types of gains caught Superintendent Todd Davies’ eye. While he sees the benefit for the schools and the students who can learn how to “better thrive in an increasingly complex and competitive society,” he believes the connections these students make are perhaps even as valuable. And the reverse is true. “Oftentimes people in the operations side of the district feel overlooked, disconnected or out of the loop because they are not typically working directly with students. This brings our mission with students (“Every Student Every Day”) to all our departments.”