A John Jay High School program geared toward preparing special needs students to join the workforce is growing, thanks in large part to partnerships forged with local businesses, according to Patrick Chiappetta, a job coach with the JJHS Life Skills program.
Mr. Chiappetta is among the six to seven educators at JJHS who work with special needs students in an effort to develop the basic, necessary skills for independent adulthood. Over the last two years he has helped grow the vocational training program within the Life Skills program and has witnessed a flourishing relationship between the community and his students, he said.
“My main thing is it takes a village to raise a child,” he said. “Why not have it in our own village?”
Mr. Chiappetta has worked in the Katonah-Lewisboro school district for six years and joined the special education department in the position of job coach last year. A large aspect of his job is to be a facilitator between employers and students and foster a positive learning experience that teaches, if not introduces his students to, the basic skills necessary to function in the workforce.
“We help kids transition into the real world by using life skills,” said Kerrie Kuntz, a special education teacher at JJHS. The program teaches a bevy of activities for daily living, ranging from cooking, cleaning and laundry to tasks ordinarily taken for granted, such as counting money, crossing the street and using the Internet for email and information, she said.
“It’s about getting them to advocate for themselves,” Ms. Kuntz said. “That is the main thing, because when they get out in the real world, that is what they are going to have to do.”
The program currently has 10 students ranging between 14 and 21 years old. The students are challenged by varying degrees of learning and physical disabilities and there is a variety of job experiences for students to choose from. Students may choose to gain work experience on or off campus, with an ever-growing list of local businesses, such as animal shelters, farms, pharmacies, nurseries, and retail stores.
The vocational program is very flexible and aims to match students with work experience according to their abilities and, most importantly, their interests, said Chris Hoyt, a teacher’s assistant and school district employee for more than 10 years.
Last year one student was able to pursue his interest in radio by working at a local station in Danbury, Conn., Ms. Hoyt said, an interest the student discovered was not the right fit for him but nonetheless one the student had the opportunity to explore.
Gossett’s Nursery in South Salem and DeCicco’s grocery store in Cross River have been working with the Life Skills program over the last few years and were highlighted by Mr. Chiappetta for their support and involvement with the program.
DeCicco’s has been the greatest supporter, he said, working with students up to five days a week and as many as two separate two-hour shifts per day.
“It is a helpful thing, and the kids are pleasant and very courteous,” said Michael Krawec, a store manager at DeCicco’s. “We find students are very eager to learn and help.”
The students are a particular pleasure on account of the relationships they build with employees and customers, he said.
Mr. Chiappetta often chaperones students at their jobs and attests to the excitement and unique character students bring to a work environment. Students are always accompanied by faculty from the program in a one- or two-students-per-faculty-member ratio.
The relationship between local businesses and the students is a win-win situation, Mr. Chiappetta said, one that more local businesses could benefit from and in turn would benefit the students with a wider variety of job experiences to choose from.
“They do the lion’s share of the work while they are there,” Mr. Chiappetta said. “We’re showing them skills on the job and how to get a job.”
Tom Gossett, owner of Gossett’s Nursery, said it has been great working with the Life Skills students. He has had students from the program working at his nursery for the last few years, helping with a number of tasks, including tagging Christmas trees and helping clean and even closing the store. He credits the staff and Ms. Hoyt in particular for their talent for patience and motivation.
“It is a pleasure to watch the work that she does,” Mr. Gossett said. “We are so impressed with her dedication and how she inspires her students.”
Mr. Gossett said he could see a number of students possibly becoming employees as they become familiar faces around the store.
Richard, a student who works at the nursery, has virtually become a member of staff, he said. But the goal of the program is not to directly employ students where they train; in fact, the program shies away from advocating direct employment so as not to create a conflict of interest and to keep fresh faces experiencing new workplaces, Mr. Chiappetta said.
The majority of the time students have excellent relationships and experiences as they gain familiarity with workplace environments, and they often receive excellent praise for their efforts, Mr. Chiappetta said.
The educators credited the JJHS student body in particular as kind, considerate and respectful of the special needs students, but they were surprised to find that in public it is often adults, not children, who do the gawking and show impatience.
“The kids learn acceptance from people who are not accepting,” Mr. Chiappetta said.
He cited an incident when a customer became impatient with a student bagging groceries.
“These kids aren’t getting paid,” he said. “They are trying their best and they are not Joe Schmo; it’s not like they don’t care about their job. They are students in the community learning, and we are trying to give the community an awareness and a little bit of acceptance. If you see a student struggling or staring off, don’t say ‘Hurry up’ or grab it from them.”
Although the students in the Life Skills program suffer from cognitive and physical disabilities, Ms. Hoyt said, they are still human beings. They know when they are being ignored or made fun of.
Such situations can be transformed into lessons about the workplace and how to deal with confrontation and negative workplace feedback, Mr. Chiappetta said.
“Acceptance is a two-way street,” he said. “Students need to learn how to deal with a rude customer, too.”
Despite the program continuing to add businesses to its running list (most recently Kellogg and Lawrence hardware store in Katonah and Visions hair salon in Cross River), the program has no specific businesses targeted for its expanded offerings and will leave that up to the community to decide, Mr. Chiappetta said.
But the value these students can provide to local businesses and the life experience businesses can return to them is a particularly heart-warming experience to be a part of, Mr. Gossett said. He was glad to have been asked to participate in the program and said it was a great way to feel closer to the community.
Working with the community, and parents especially, is a key part of the program, Ms. Kuntz said. And while the educators acknowledge that their students are different and may not be capable of doing everything, they will undoubtedly excel at something, and that is the whole focus of the vocational training program, she said.
“Every child in here is a superhero,” Ms. Hoyt said. “They [each] have some struggle and they work really hard to overcome, sometimes with our help, and we would like people to know they are so capable.”