Special education students may benefit from broader Life Skills program

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OCEAN CITYOcean City school district officials would like to expand its Life Skills program, a special program designed to help students with disabilities transition from the school world to the work world, in order to benefit more students.

The Life Skills program is for students over 17, after they would graduate, until they are 21. New Jersey special education laws require school districts to provide an education for some students until they reach the age of 21.

At a Dec. 14 school board meeting, Dean Paolizzi, director of special education, said students would benefit if the district instituted a Job Sampling program in addition to the Life Skills program, which would serve students from the ages of 14 to 17. He also asked the school board to consider creating a “practice apartment” within a classroom to assist some of the older special education students.

“It would be a small-scale apartment,” he said, with a living room, kitchen and bedroom. “It would be a great thing to do if we can do it.”

Students, he said, could learn the basics required to live on their own, simple things like loading and unloading a dishwasher, how to keep their living space clean and safe and how to take care of themselves.

The program, he said, helps them transition from school to the workforce by teaching students basic hygiene, safety, money management and other skills needed for successful employment.

Many local businesses and organizations, including Wawa, McDonald’s, City Hall, Stewart’s Root Beer and the Chamber of Commerce have offered to host the students as employees. Working with a job coach, the students spend part of their school week in academic pursuits and the rest of the time “on the job.”

During the school day, the students currently run a coffee cart business.

“They do everything from beginning to end,” Paolizzi said.

Customer service is critical, he said, but they know how to set up, clean up, provide sugar and creamer and keep the cart clean. They learn how to develop new products, too, when staff members make suggestions.

In the past, the students in the Life Skills program made decorative holiday pins and sold them to support staff members for $2. A Santa pin, he said, was a hot seller as were colorful Christmas ornaments.

“The high school staff was wonderful,” Paolizzi said.

Making the pins provided an opportunity for occupational therapy and the development of fine motor skills. Once the items were completed, the students learned to market them and count the profits to make a bank deposit.

“They made coupon books to sell to the teachers,” he said.

Staff members bought the coupon books to give as gifts.

“They could get five cups of coffee. It’s like running a business. They were able to develop real life skills.”

Work place and social skills, he noted, are needed if the students are to be successful once they leave the safe confines of Ocean City High School.

The Ocean City school district contracted with Allies, Inc., a non-profit company that helps facilitate students in the workplace. Luke Washack serves as a job coach and also assists Allies with locating suitable employers in the area.

“Our goal is to get the students ready to go out in the community,” said Washack. “We help them learn the job skills they will need after high school.”

Since Allies is new to the South Jersey area, Washack said he is always on the lookout for employers in the market for students in transition. The supported employment program helps students learn about appropriate dress and behavior in the work environment, including how to handle a job interview.

Once a student lands a job, the coaching part is “intensive,” Washack said.

“The idea is to help make them feel comfortable and to be able to eventually work independently,” he said. “While they are in transition, the coach is there to help them.”

Paolizzi said special education students would benefit from a career-oriented program beginning at age 14. The apartment, he said, provides a hands-on environment to prepare them for life after high school.

“The more we can increase this program the better,” he said. “We need to get our students ready to be out in the workforce.”

No action was taken by the school board on the presentation.


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