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Oct 9, 2018 6:22 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

School To Work Program Teaches Valuable Life Skills In East Hampton

Students in Ms. Klein's transitional development class preparing a grocery list for a meal they plan to cook on Monday. ELIZABETH VESPE
Oct 9, 2018 6:22 AM

At East Hampton High School, everyone—including young adults with special needs—can strive for independence.

Shifting from education to employment is important, according to Denise Klein, a special education and transitional development teacher at the high school, whose school-to-work program introduces students to on-the-job training.

“It focuses on transitioning from high school to work,” said Ms. Klein on a recent Thursday afternoon, sitting behind a neatly organized desk in her classroom. Throughout her career, Ms. Klein has worked with students with a range of challenges from Down syndrome to autism to physical handicaps to mild learning problems and language barriers. In New York State, many students with special needs can stay in high school until they are 21 instead of graduating at 18.

“We focus on the student’s needs,” Ms. Klein said of the shool-to-work program. “It’s usually a three-year cycle. First, the students work on interpersonal skills, daily living skills—cooking, cleaning and possibly paying bills—and in the third year, after the students are of age to work, typically 16, they participate in the school-to-work program in the afternoons of the school day.”

Businesses that have taken part in the program include the IGA, Shine Boutique and the Montauk Playhouse in Montauk, Riverhead Building Supply and Stop & Shop in East Hampton, and Salty Home and Staples in Bridgehampton.

"It's a good experience, before you get older—you learn how to cook and you learn about what's good for you," said Kevin Inga, a student in Ms. Klein's transitional development class.

“We’re all over the place,” Ms. Klein said with a smile. “I have one student interested in computers, so he goes to work at Staples in Bridgehampton."

Ms. Klein tries to rotate the students for job placement based on their aptitudes, interests and needs, just as with anyone else looking for a job. The workplaces to train at are narrowed down to one or two, and from11:30 to 1:30 on certain days, the students leave campus for training, at first accompanied by Ms. Klein or an assistant teacher.

“On Fridays, we travel-train,” Ms. Klein explained. “Some of the kids in the program may never be able to drive a car … As the kids get to be seniors and 'super seniors,' they can travel independently. If they’re working in Montauk, they have to make certain they catch the 10C bus.”

According to Ms. Klein, who's still in touch with people who have aged out of the program, many stay on at the same jobs for years.

One of them is errick Miller of East Hampton, 27, who started his current job at Stop & Shop through the high school program.

“I love working here!” he said one recent day at the store.

“I’ve been working here for eight years and everyone is so good to me," said Mr. Miller, who replenishes shelves, checks expiration dates, and greets customers in the pastry section. "My job always puts a smile on my face."

According to Joe Licata, the supermarket's assistant manager, four of the current 80 salary-based employees have some degree of special needs. "Someone trains and shadows them in the beginning,” Mr. Licata said, “but after the training period, they are on their own, just as our other employees.

“Everyone does a great job, and they’re super friendly with the customers,” Mr. Licata said.

Maria Silvestri, senior vice president of human resources for Stop & Shop, explained that the company assigns job coaches to many workers with special needs and tries to find the right niche for all employees.

“We assign all associates to departments we, and they, believe they will thrive and have a desire to be a part of,” she said. “We want to be the employer of choice for a vast array of individuals so that our stores reflect the diversity of our communities."

Ms. Klein noted that students in the school-to-work program can get debit cards and learn how to deposit paychecks and save money. In addition, they work in her class on writing resumes and honing interpersonal skills.

This year there are seven students in the transitional development program, and three of them are of age to participate in the school-to-work program.

“It’s a fantastic program,” Ms. Klein said. “A lot of the kids with certain needs are getting jobs—and the community embraces them.”

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