There is a large population of students who are stuck in an education system that wasn’t built with their needs in mind. Students with special needs are eight times less likely to find a job than their peers who don’t have disabilities. In Alabama’s Lauderdale County Schools, we are taking steps to remedy this problem with a research-based program that instills vital skills to help with the classroom-to-workforce transition.
Our transitional program aims to equip students with essential job, life and core curriculum skills to prepare them for future careers. Our district has five self-contained secondary classrooms for students with moderate to severe special needs, ranging in age from 13 to 21. These classrooms let students explore different career fields and many go on to find jobs in retail, hospitality and maintenance, among others.
A vital element to the program’s success is its hands-on approach. This student population benefits greatly by learning within the context of doing something. For example, our retailing module includes materials for students to practice skills such as stocking shelves, bagging groceries and more. Students watch videos of the concept in action, and then practice the skill on their own.
We have seen gains in achievement as high as 250 percent from pre-test to post-test. More importantly, we are helping students find work that they enjoy and live independent lives after high school. The better we can prepare them for this transition, the more likely they are to succeed when they graduate.
Using a curriculum that employs hands-on learning and is tailored to students with special needs has been critical to our success. Here are three additional strategies that have helped:
Find a product that simplifies planning. We use a combination of resources including the Adapted Career Education Series from Education Associates which comes with ready-to-use kits that lets students learn about more than 100 different career options. Having a system that requires minimal preparation makes teachers’ jobs easier and lets them focus on working with students rather than lesson planning.
Invest in professional development. This should be obvious, but it bears repeating: Train teachers. Tools and resources are only beneficial when teachers know how to use them. An implementation schedule helped us provide training and support to our teachers prior to introducing new concepts to our students.
Prepare students through real-world scenarios. Teachers can reinforce core curriculum skills, such as reading, math and science, as they teach basic job and life skills. For instance, while students are learning to make change for customers in the food service curriculum, they are also developing important math skills.
This approach is making lifelong differences in these students. They’re gaining confidence and skills for independence. Best of all, they see that the workforce is possible for them, no matter the hardships they may encounter.
Brooke Gilmer is the director of special education services for Lauderdale County Schools in Alabama.
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