AIU helping students with special needs land job internships
March 20, 2017 5:38 PM
Hailey Barton, left, owner of Barton’s Flowers & Bake Shop Inc. in Elizabeth Borough, helps Brittany Lippert, 18, right, prepare dough for peanut butter thumbprints. Ms. Lippert is a student at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit's Mon Valley School. Also pictured is Glenna Chandler, an assistant baker and cake decorator.
Brittany Lippert, 18, center, a student at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit's Mon Valley School works on lattice bars in the kitchen at Barton’s Flowers & Bake Shop Inc. in Elizabeth Borough. With Ms. Lippert is Glenna Chandler, left, an assistant baker and cake decorator, and the bakery's owner, Hailey Barton.
Jan DePalma, left, a job coach with Sunrise School, gets a hug from Alexandra Cochran as they prepare pudding deserts at the Monroeville PPG Industries complex.
Zonia Smith, who is in the Allegheny Intermediate Unit's Sunrise School program, prepares vegetables for the salad bar with another worker in the Monroeville PPG Industries complex. Ms. Smith works there as part of a partnership between the Allegheny Intermediate Unit and the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation.
Zonia Smith, who is in the Allegheny Intermediate Unit's Sunrise School, prepares vegetables for the salad bar with another worker in the Monroeville PPG Industries complex. Ms. Smith works there as part of a partnership between the Allegheny Intermediate Unit and the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation.
Brittany Lippert, 18, right, a student at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit's Mon Valley School, helps prepare dough for peanut butter thumbprints in the kitchen at Barton’s Flowers & Bake Shop Inc. in Elizabeth Borough. At left is Glenna Chandler, an assistant baker and cake decorator.
By Elizabeth Behrman / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Tammie Lippert said her daughter’s part-time, minimum wage job has been an answer to her prayers.
Brittany Lippert, who has autism, spends a few hours two days a week at Barton’s Flowers & Bake Shop Inc. in Elizabeth Borough. She started in late November and originally was hired to help wash dishes. The owners have since allowed her to help with the baking.
And Ms. Lippert and her husband, who live in Finleyville, Washington County, couldn’t be more proud.
“It’s given her confidence she did not have before, and a feeling of independence and more courage to try new things,” Ms. Lippert said. “It’s given us hope as well because now we’re able to see that even though she’s autistic, she can be a productive member of society in the right setting with the right people.”
Brittany, 18, is a student at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit’s Mon Valley School in Clairton, one of three schools run by the agency that offer curricula tailored specifically for students with special needs. Thanks to new legislation that more closely links the work of public schools and the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation, administrators at the schools are trying to get more students like Brittany prepared for the workforce and into jobs in which they can earn at least minimum wage.
“The goal has always been to get them as independent as we can get them,” said Rich Dowell, principal of the Mon Valley School, who helped place Brittany at the bakery job.
The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act was passed in 2014 and officially implemented last year. It aims to help prepare students with special needs or disabilities for the workforce — at a job within the community, rather than a sheltered workplace. All three schools run by the intermediate unit are working to grow their programs and get more students ready to be hired by employers such as PPG, UPMC, Marshalls, Shur Save, Village Hardware and Giant Eagle.
“It really is an opportunity to reform the public workforce system,” said Victoria Rice Campbell, the transition coordinator at the AIU’s Sunrise School in Monroeville.
In the past, public schools used to be responsible only for getting the students to graduation, and then the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation would step in to place them in jobs, she said. As part of the new requirements, the instructors start working with students on things such as resume writing and interview skills when they are 14. Eventually, they work their way to an internship, where they get actual experience working in a public setting with job coaches nearby. The ultimate goal is to place them in a paid job after they graduate at age 21.
Alex Cochran, 20, has Down syndrome and multiple internships that keep her busy while she prepares to graduate from Sunrise next year. Last week, she spent her Monday morning shift at the cafe in the PPG Monroeville facility rolling meatballs and labeling pudding portions before the employees’ lunch hour.
“It’s kinda fun,” she said as she spooned dollops of chocolate and banana pudding into plastic cups. After she graduates, she’d like to keep working in a kitchen, she said, possibly at Kings Family Restaurant.
“She just does a really good job,” said Jan DePalma, a job coach with Sunrise School who works with Alex and another student during their shifts every week. “We’re a good team and she’s come a really long way.”
The new partnership with the the OVR expanded what schools like those run by the AIU can offer students with disabilities, Ms. Campbell said. In addition, it enhances what the instructors already teach students about independent living, budgeting, and traveling to and from a job.
“Sometimes our kids need several experiences to master something,” she said. “We have to think not just about the ‘hard skill’ — about doing the job. For our kids it’s the ‘soft skills’ also.”
The internships teach them things like how to manage their time, dress for work, make eye contact or provide good customer service.
“All of these skills our kids get to practice when we’re on the job,” Ms. Campbell said.
The challenge now is building more partnerships with businesses in the community that are willing to work with and accommodate the students, Mr. Dowell said. The OVR in many cases reimburses the companies for the students’ wages, but the schools are still responsible for finding and coordinating transportation for them.
The jobs don’t have to be full time, Mr. Dowell said, but they do need to be individualized to the students. And sometimes the students, who have developmental, behavioral, emotional or physical disabilities, are not a good fit for the first job they’re hired to do.
But, Ms. Campbell said, the new partnership is allowing students learn more of these skills earlier at real jobs.
“We know that that early transition makes our kids successful,” Ms. Campbell said. “Every one of my kids is walking out of my class with a resume.”
Elizabeth Behrman: Lbehrman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1590.
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