Real-world classroom

SARANAC LAKE – A group of special education students in the Saranac Lake Central School District have been getting some real-world experience by working part-time jobs at businesses around the community.

Will Ellsworth, a high school teacher and the district’s transition and work experience coordinator, outlined a new community-based work experience program for special education students at last week’s Saranac Lake school board meeting.

“The program is designed to give students an opportunity to develop job readiness skills in the world of work with the necessary supports for them to be successful,” Ellsworth said. “The goal of the program is to offer community-based instruction aimed at building a students’ resume of skills that will lead to financial independence.”

Thirteen special education students are currently participating in the program. Half the day, they learn about life skills, reading, writing and math. The other half of the day is spent working about two-and-a-half-hours at a business or organization in the community. Every 10 weeks the students change their job placement, so they get to work four jobs per school year.

Some of the locations where the students have worked, performing entry-level jobs for no pay, include the Tri-Lakes Humane Society, the Saranac Lake Civic Center, the Saranac Lake Youth Center, Dewey Mountain Recreation Center and the Enterprise. Ellsworth also created a school store that this year produced more than 100 wreaths that were sold to teachers and people throughout the community. The money raised from selling the wreaths – close to $1,000 – funded activities like tubing and cross-country skiing.

“Our kids do a great job,” Ellsworth said. “You have to remember that these students have intellectual disabilities, developmental disabilities. Our program is just staring to soar right now.”

The students in the program are what Ellsworth described as “grey-area kids” who haven’t been able to pass a Regents test but don’t fall under the category of having severe disabilities.

Ellsworth said the state recently proposed creating a new Regents certificate of work readiness for such students. In order to get the certificate, each student would have to accumulate 216 hours throughout high school in a work-based learning environment.

Ellsworth said Saranac Lake’s work-experience program has led to increased attendance at school and a higher likelihood of graduation. It’s also helping school officials determine what supports and services these students will need after high school.

In some cases, the program has also led to job offers. Ellsworth read a letter from a student who said his experience in the program got him a job working as a cleaner at McDonald’s.

“I like being in the community more than school because it’s a hands-on job for us,” the student wrote. “Instead of sitting in a classroom, you’re in the community learning the skills that can be really helpful when you graduate or get a job.”

High School Principal Bruce Van Weelden said the work-experience program is not only necessary but is “a required element for a particular contingent of students in our school in regards to transitioning to the community beyond high school.

“We do spend a lot of time talking about the costs associated with special-education programming, but this particular endeavor, we were able to pull of at little to no cost,” Van Weelden said, crediting Ellsworth for his persistence and hard work in bringing the program to fruition.