Cristina bags groceries at Price Chopper. Ryan and Cody polish the video games at Saratoga Strike Zone. Thomas and Amanda stock shelves at Rite Aid.
They all do it happily because these jobs are their lifeline to independence.
These young people are part of the BOCES School-to-Work Program, a full-day program that has successfully placed 100 percent of its mentally and physically challenged students in supportive employment, day habilitation programs, and college programs for the past 21 years.
“Before School-to-Work, handicapped students left school and entered adult service programs that would have to train and place them in jobs,” said School-to-Work founder and teacher Tammy Goldsmith. “These students left high school with no job preparation. Now, when these students graduate, they are trained and employable.”
Goldsmith started the program in 1991 with a $10,000 grant from the federal government. The WSWHE BOCES program was the first to combine Special Education with Career and Technical Education (CTE) in New York State, and it quickly became a model for BOCES everywhere. In the early years, Mrs. Goldsmith hosted educators from across the state who wanted to observe the program. She also spoke at state-wide conferences on the topic of preparing mentally and physically challenged students for the world of work.
“With the help of Kathy Burns (former director of the Special and Alternative Education division), Anthony Cavotto (former Work-Based Learning coordinator) and Howard Raymond (former principal of CTE), we worked with Committees on Special Education (CSEs) to develop the program,” remembered Goldsmith. “We worked with the adult programs and businesses to come up with a curriculum that not only placed them in jobs, but taught the students skills like how to find a job, how to keep a job, as well as consumer math and resume writing.”
In its first year, in a rented store front in the now defunct Pyramid Mall in Saratoga Springs, the 12:1:2 program placed 12 students in non-paid internships within the shopping complex for half of the day. Then and today, the working students were accompanied by job coaches. The remainder of the day, students honed resumes and job skills such as critical thinking, problem-solving, money management, literacy, and interpersonal soft skills.
In addition to other BOCES replicating the WSWHE BOCES School-to-Work program, many districts have tried their hand at recreating it too. However, many do not have the supports to spend half of the day working on applied academics. Nor do they have the 20-plus years of experience with the business community and the area’s adult agencies.
“I have a good rapport with many area businesses and agencies,” said Mrs. Goldsmith. “We all work closely to collaborate and to find the best fit for each student. If the student does not like where they are working, we will find them something else. We have a lot of flexibility.”
A parent of a former student recently wrote a letter about her daughter's experience in the STW program, which began with: “I cannot speak strongly enough about how this program and her experiences there helped to prepare her for post-graduate life.”
The letter goes on to state: “Despite the emphasis on testing and teacher accountability, at the end of the day it is it is a sense of personal pride and concrete competence that will be the biggest measure of our students’ success. The STW program provides exactly what these students need most.”
The non-paid internships vary in length of time to meet the students’ individual needs. Some feel comfortable working one hour. Others, like Michael, work evenings and weekends too. He proudly announced that at the Mechanicville Price Chopper in his hometown, he was promoted to a paid position. He now handles hundreds of bottles that are returned there each day.
Others, who are able to take CTE courses, find their niche in chosen fields. Culinary Arts students enjoy food prep in restaurants and bakeries. Horticulture students maintain lawns and gardens at parks and churches.
“We had one student who was in a wheelchair,” remembered Mrs. Goldsmith. “He liked working at Burger King. Burger King built a handicap accessible work area for him. He was there for years. It was wonderful.”
Some students, like two who graduated last year, went on to the College Experience Program at the College of St. Rose. Each year, the college accepts a handful of students with mental disabilities to learn adaptive living skills.
“It’s very competitive. We were so proud of them,” said Mrs. Goldsmith. “Mainly this program works because we are a team: the students, the parents, the school districts, the businesses, the adult agencies and BOCES work together to create an ideal situation for every student."