BY KAREN CAMPBELL
Weakley County Schools Communications Director
WEAKLEY COUNTY (October 8) – Teacher Matt Castleman made sure each member of the VIEW Crew knew their task and was prepared to load the Thursday morning cart with 6-, 8-, and 10-ounce cups of hot cocoa and coffees ranging from pumpkin spice to plain. Within minutes of the change of classes, the assembly line was engaged and soon, staff and faculty at Westview had an inexpensive, early morning treat delivered to their doors.
The significance of the student enterprise is that the workers were part of the newest approach to ensuring Vital Individualized Education and Work, a name Westview High School has adopted for classes focused on students with special needs.
Practicing soft skills like those needed for customer service and applying reading, writing, and math knowledge are among the benefits of the newly-launched VIEW Crew Coffee Cart and just one example of how Weakley County Schools is embracing its mission.
“To provide an educational environment that will encourage students to achieve their full potential as they prepare for unique roles as contributing members of our complex and changing society has always driven us,” said Randy Frazier, Director of Weakley County Schools. “Boot camps for ACT preparation, career and technical education tracks, work-based learning and student enterprises are a few of the tools. In the last couple of years, we’ve gained the means to hone our approach for our students with special needs.”
The “means” to which he is referring are Transition School to Work funds which have allowed for the addition of a Transition Case Manager and two Workplace Readiness Specialists. After Kayla Wilson, OTR/L, laid the groundwork for the state-funded grant channeled through Vocational Rehabilitation, Kandace Jackson assumed the role in 2021. Keith Douglas and Kaylee Kemp have taken on the specialists’ positions.
Jackson explains that the Transition to Work (TSW) program is designed to prepare students for the transition from school to work or post-secondary training through the delivery of five services:
- Job Exploration Counseling – Exploring career choices and requirements of specific jobs
- Work-based Learning – Engaging in paid or non-paid work experiences within school settings or community-based settings
- Work-readiness Training – Preparing students for the workplace through training and education on social, job specific and independent living skills
- Self-advocacy Training – Helping students learn more about themselves, their disability and how to interact with the world
- Post-secondary Counseling – Exploring options such as education programs, technical school certifications, vocational rehabilitation, etc.
Jackson brings 15 years of teaching business administration and marketing courses to high school students as well as knowledge of the work study program which allows students to spend a portion of the day at school and then move into a supervised employment situation for the rest of the day. Douglas has concentrated his work experience in the Weakley County system on special needs students. Kemp, a recent graduate of the University of Tennessee at Martin, spent much of her high school years as a part of Best Buddies, the organization dedicated to offering friendships, integrated employment, and leadership development for individuals with intellectual and development disabilities.
In addition to the more than 80 students that Wilson enrolled in November of 2020, the new team now also works with middle schools. Douglas concentrates on Sharon School, Martin Middle and Westview. Kemp spends her time at Greenfield, Gleason, and Dresden.
Any student with any type of documented disability is eligible for the program, Jackson pointed out. The population encompasses those in classes like the VIEW to those students who participate in general education classes but also receive special education services.
She explained that after reviewing options, the team developed a strategy of introducing career exploration to middle schoolers.
“Middle schoolers need to understand the realities of careers. We talk to a lot of students that want to go into the NBA or be a pop star. Our job is to give them realistic goals and expectations,” she said. “Once they have explored career paths, we will work with them to determine their best focus – business, ag, art, etc. – in high school and the courses they will need to take.”
Feedback and assistance on improving study habits, assessments to determine learning styles and strategies to help ensure grades stay on track are also provided.
“We tell them, ‘Our goal is to get you the job that you want and in order to do that you have to graduate from high school and in order to do that you’ve got to continuously pass your classes,” she added.
When working with high school students, challenges must be addressed. Those challenges include a lack of driver’s license, no bank account or understanding of having an account, decreased awareness of how laws change after high school related to disability, and a limited understanding of the process for applying to a technical school or college.
Responding to these challenges, the team is plotting a year of practical helps such as money management as well as hands-on introductions to college personnel who work in offices established to assist students with disabilities.
Jackson said while serving their current students, the team is also researching future options such as installing a workplace simulation lab for students to be immersed in typical workplace settings such as computer technology, consumer service, processing, and production environments. Students would be able to clock in, pick up their assigned tasks and equipment for the session and work at their level of expertise.
“It’s designed to mimic a real work setting with tasks that vary from computer to construction to food services, helping build skills like making change for example. We would encourage the students to explore all the jobs and rate them. The data we would be able to pull based on their interactions would be valuable for us as we continue to strategize with the students about their future,” Jackson noted.
Since the program is both new and open to customization, the team could easily be viewed as “building the plane as they fly it,” observed Deborah Perkins, Director of WCS Special Education. “Their current work concentrating on discovering more about the students with whom they work while also investigating the types of tools needed to move them along the career exploration path are critical. With the next phase of the TSW grant moving more into work-based learning and job coaching, the team is taking the appropriate steps to transition into success.”