Learning by doing: Program helps mildly impaired students explore job skills

Photo by Sue Suchyta
Hakeem Smith (left), 17, of Flat Rock, works on a timed and patterned colored peg assembly simulated work task, while Stephen (last name held upon request), 16, of Trenton completes three different pipe assemblies from a box full of parts while following visual diagrams as part of the Practical Assessment Exploration System at Trenton High School.

Times-Herald Newspapers

TRENTON – A new job exploration, training and assessment program helps mildly cognitively impaired students Downriver discover work skills they like and are good at in a hands-on learning and simulated work environment.

The Practical Assessment Exploration System, launched at Trenton High School this fall in cooperation with the Downriver Career Technical Consortium, lets high school juniors and seniors identified by their Individualized Education Program, as well as eligible 18- to 21-year-old post-secondary students sample different job skills, discover their strengths and see what they like to do.

The 23 PAES students Trenton High School hosts come from Southgate, Trenton, Woodhaven, Gibraltar and Huron Township, representing half of eligible Downriver districts. Special Education teacher Andrea Thorn of Allen Park said Trenton students are in PAES for two class periods, while students from other districts attend for one-and-a-half to two hours, depending on their bus commute times.

Para-professional Tina Sullivan of Trenton also works with the PAES students, and
Special Education teacher Casey Cornelius of Royal Oak joins them in the afternoon.

Thorn said a need for a program for mildly cognitively impaired students arose when existing career programs shifted their requirements to comply with the Michigan Merit Curriculum.

PAES is academically appropriate for a Certification of Completion student, whose disability may render them incapable of pursuing a diploma track, which corresponds to the Michigan Merit Curriculum high school graduation requirements, Thorn said.

Michigan Merit Curriculum high school graduation requirements include four specified credits each of math and English language; three each of science and social studies; one each of physical education, arts, and online learning; and two credits of a world language.

A Certificate of Completion is not an academic credential and does not have state course or grade requirements. For students who successfully work toward their IEP goals, a certificate of completion lets them participate in their high school graduation ceremonies.

Trenton High School had room to house the PAES program, and other eligible districts Downriver contribute financially to the program costs.

With PAES, students explore five broad job categories: construction and industrial, business and marketing, processing and production, computer technology, and consumer and service industries.

Each category has lists of specific job skills, some with increasing levels of difficulty. A student masters one task before moving on to the next, more difficult one.

As they complete tasks, assessments show how much assistance students needed, their first attempt performances, work rates, the number of trials needed to complete a task correctly and their interest in the type of job they just finished.

“We do a lot of talking with the kids, like, ‘Where could you see yourself doing a job similar to this?’ to make those connections,” Thorn said. “At this point it is really like an exploratory type thing, to see what things you like to do, what things you are good at, and then what are the job applications.”

The students also do community service and help around the high school with desk cleaning, clerical tasks, courtyard maintenance and supporting student council activities, which use some of the skills that they have learned.

Thorn hopes they can form community partnerships, and do tasks like folding fliers and stuffing envelopes for local businesses and civic groups that they can do in their classroom.

In addition to helping students connect skills with potential jobs, PAES students clock in and out each day and manage their imaginary minimum wage earnings through a practice online banking system, http://s3.mykidsbank.org.

School psychologists come in weekly to discuss job skills like goal setting, attitude, making a good first impression, professionalism, problem solving and critical thinking, teamwork and even balancing personal and work life.

Asia Taylor, 16, of Taylor, said the program is fun and she likes what they do in it, like learning different job skills. She said she tells relatives that the program is preparing her for life.

Christina White, 18, of Woodhaven also likes learning different job skills, and said replicating patterns and designs, like with colored pegs, is an activity she enjoys.

“You get to learn different jobs and they will help you out in life,” White said. “I just learned how to do sewing, and (assemble) pipe (fittings) and stuff.”

White said they helped at the elementary school recently, teaching children a craft, a skill that could lead to a job in childcare.

Sullivan said the staff gets a lot of satisfaction knowing they are helping students learn job skills that will help them out later in life and that they will feel confident and good about doing.

“I just think it is a real eye-opener to a lot of the students to see that they are actually really good at something,” Sullivan said, “things that they thought they never were.”

Sullivan said one student was so excited about wiring a doorbell that he wanted to run and show all of his other teachers.

Another was apprehensive about using the computer, but he felt better as he worked through a task.

“He made mistakes, (and) he learned that it might take him longer,” Sullivan said, “but in the end he did it. There are a lot of high points, a lot of satisfaction.”

With more than a decade of teaching experience, Thorn said she always felt like she was doing the right thing for children, and now she knows she is doing the right thing for the students in PAES.

“This is a special place for a special group of kids that didn’t really have a place before,” Thorn said. “And I think that being able to be a part of that and seeing them being successful, I love it. I do. It’s a good thing.”