A publication of the Association of California School Administrators
A publication of the Association of California School Administrators
Meaningful futures for all
Special education students can build job skills through student-run businesses and meaningful internships
By Steve Amaro | March | April 2024
It’s graduation day and the Class of 20something is ready to participate in a memorable ceremony. Students relive their best memories, connect with their friends one last time as actual students and begin the first step towards their next stage of adulthood.
Graduation is memorable for all students, celebrating academic achievement with a diploma that opens the metaphorical door to employment or future studies at college. Many students will find their future paths through opportunities that arise throughout their high school years, but special education students involved in Special Day Classes (SDC) may participate in graduation ceremonies, understand it as a day of monumental importance, but discover they face additional challenges in finding ways to continue their studies and potential future careers.
We live in a society where the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) exists to level the playing field so that everyone can lead meaningful lives, but the ideal that everyone can find success equally is sometimes not felt by our most vulnerable populations. Employment is never guaranteed, but school leaders can play a role in helping prepare our special needs students to explore successful post-high-school opportunities. Whether it is connecting parents and students to post-high-school programs, working with local businesses to find meaningful internships, or even creating student-run businesses on campus, school leaders can be catalysts to propel SDC students to successful post-secondary experiences.
Post-secondary program nights
It is common for many high schools to host college and career nights where colleges and businesses send representatives to connect with students. From the business perspective, businesses can connect with their future clients and prospective workers. From the school perspective, these events help students gain more clarity on what they can, and may want to, do after high school. What is sometimes overlooked is that these events can also include components for special needs students. For example, local special needs day programs for adults who receive funding from regional centers may be invited to present their programs as well. In this way, post-secondary events can be more inclusive as special needs families can learn of the various special needs programs that exist, find out what fits for their student and what the local programs offer. For example, SDC students may be interested in further developing independent living skills and programs that focus on such development could attend to share their business models and testimonials.
For those students that want to explore a more regimented educational pathway, post-high-school college programs could also be invited. Although these programs can be incredibly competitive, examples such as the Taft Transition to Independent Living Program or the UC Davis Redwood SEED program are examples where the programs were created to support students learning and being part of a collegiate environment. Colleges nationwide are adding such programs at a record pace as collegiate leaders recognize value in having special needs students on campus for both special needs students and the entire campus community.
Creating meaningful internships
Educators often hear the saying, “It takes a village to raise a child.” School leaders can take this mindset with them as they share inclusive visions with local businesses. Nearly all students want to contribute to the communities around them, and students with special needs are no different. Special needs students frequently take community field trips to learn how to shop, build social skills through professional interaction, and explore the world around them.
School leaders can leverage these trips to explore business connections that may lead to meaningful internships. For example, after students visit a favorite lunch restaurant and possibly even take an arranged tour of the business, leaders may want to explore the possibility of having students go to the business on certain days with teaching staff to help open the business for the day. Tasks such as setting tables for guests, rearranging light furniture, or even taking on the role of a greeter at the door to welcome customers can become real opportunities.
Nearly all students want to contribute to the communities around them, and students with special needs are no different.
Building relationships with businesses can quickly become synergistic. Business owners quickly realize the benefits of such partnerships as nearly all community members want to see special needs students succeed, and students strengthen their confidence, adaptability and workability skills so that they increase the likelihood of finding meaningful employment after high school. Running a school business on campus One of the bigger ventures that schools can explore to strengthen post-secondary job skills is to create school businesses on campus. These types of opportunities can take on a variety of formats, but this is part of the excitement as the possibilities are limitless. Some schools may choose to leverage their web presence to create online shops where students can sell art to the public while others may choose to experiment with teacher food or drink delivery services during a certain period of the day. Some schools may choose to develop a community service model where special needs students take on and complete various projects on campus that mimic what local tradesman may complete. One business that builds workability skills, gets students more familiar with retail and customer service, and involves the local community involves creating a physical coffee shop on campus. School sites can identify rooms on campus that are easily accessible to the public, redesign the furniture inside to mimic a coffee shop, and then open the doors on specific, scheduled days. Such an opportunity can be a great experience for everyone. School leaders can invite parents, local dignitaries and even the larger community to be a part of the school. Special needs students then become responsible for being door greeters, menu creation, taking orders, collecting funds and customer service. Teachers and paraprofessionals can help with any task of operations, but when students get the opportunity to experience a live business, they gain new perspective and begin to understand that they can have successful, meaningful employment experiences long after high school. Final thoughts Although school leaders will never be able to guarantee post-secondary success for all students, they can expose them to a variety of opportunities that can help them reach their fullest potential. It is important that school leaders make it a point to look for opportunities for every student, including those with special needs, to have meaningful connection to businesses and their communities. Schools are in the business of setting the foundations for student success, and when leaders create opportunities to connect students with post-secondary programs and internships that provide valuable business skills, they create the foundations for a kinder, more inclusive world. Steve Amaro, Ed.D., is principal of Freedom High School and a member of the Special Olympics National Education Leaders Network.