On Monday afternoons, customers of the Southampton Blue Duck Bakery location are treated to an extra smile while ordering an afternoon cookie or cup of coffee.
That smile belongs to 17-year-old Jared Terry, one of four students from the special education program at Southampton High School who has been working at local businesses several days a week since September to develop life skills outside the classroom.
The main goal of the school-to-work program, according to special education teachers Laura Franklin and Tanya Ciancio, is to help the students gain work experience, hopefully enabling them to remain in the community after graduating from high school. Last week, the teachers said they have been overwhelmed with the response they have received in helping the students—all of whom have a cognitive impairment—acclimate to their new working roles. They are looking forward to continuing the program again next year, they said.
“It has really been a great experience for them,” Ms. Ciancio said. “They are doing really well and we are grateful to the community for their help and support.”
While the district has had similar programs in the past, this is the first year Ms. Ciancio and Ms. Franklin pushed to have a real community involvement, noting that in the past students had to travel to the west to participate. The teachers started planning together over the summer and reached out to local entrepreneur and former head of the Southampton Chamber of Commerce Millie Fellingham to drum up support. Ms. Fellingham was instantly hooked on the idea.
To get started, the trio, with the support of the Southampton Kiwanis Club—where Ms. Fellingham is a board member—drafted a letter in search of businesses interested in taking in students for the work program a few days a week. The response was overwhelming. According to Ms. Franklin, within weeks they had received 10 to 15 responses from local businesses all willing to help, way more than the district needed to move forward with the program.
From there, they worked to evaluate the job offers and match them with specific skills for each of the four students eligible to participate. In September, the students started their job placements, with Jared at Blue Duck Bakery, Julian Garcia working in the recreation room at the Hampton Center for Rehabilitation, Kevin Sanchez busing tables at Fellingham’s Sports Bar and Restaurant, and Mary Romano stocking shelves and minding the store at Second Nature Market.
And the students take their jobs seriously. Jared, who cleans tables and counters at the bakery and makes sure the display cases are perfect, said he likes keeping busy at work so he does not get fired, and that he loves his job.
“I get to see the community,” he said. “I like to work hard to someday get a job.”
Typically, the students spend approximately 90 minutes of two to three school days a week at their respective jobs. Each student is accompanied by a personal job coach who supervises the students, helping them when necessary. The students’ work schedules vary, based on the availability of their coach, their schoolwork and the needs of the business.
According to Ms. Franklin, the students first prepare for this type of program as soon as they enter the high school. The students are first given assigned jobs in the classroom and throughout the high school. Some students, she said, also work in the high school cafeteria, while others run a recycling program for district teachers.
“Once they develop those skills, that is when we look to place them,” Ms. Franklin said.
So far, the school has received nothing but positive feedback. This week, Lisa Blinderman, the owner of Second Nature Market on Main Street, said she was inspired to participate as soon as she received the information letter over the summer. Mary, she said, is a hard worker, and they never have a problem finding her jobs to do the store.
“She is such a sweet girl,” she said. “Last week we had her organizing samples from companies, and now it looks like she is cleaning shelves, but really it is teaching her to read labels and put things away in an orderly fashion. She takes care of a lot of stuff here.”
Over at Fellingham’s Sports Bar Restaurant on Cameron Street, Ms. Fellingham said she is impressed by Kevin’s work ethic, and that he is always a pleasure to have at the restaurant. Kevin, she said, works busing tables for her, including on Friday afternoons, a very busy time in the restaurant business. Based on her experience this year, Ms. Fellingham said she is excited to see how the program expands in the future.
“It is probably one of the greatest programs that I have ever been involved with,” she said. “It will be such a positive life experience for these kids.”
Now, Ms. Franklin and Ms. Ciancio said they are working to expand the program for next year. If possible, they will include more students in the program, and give the four who are working this year an opportunity to try a new job and gain more experience. With new responsibilities, the students will have a better opportunity to pinpoint which jobs they like, which will help them after graduation.
“We want them to be happy,” Ms. Franklin said. “That is really important to us, that they are happy. Just like we go away to college and choose something that makes us happy, we want something like that for them.”
The district will also be working to recruit other types of businesses into the program, noting that most of those participating this year are associated with the food industry. The teachers are hoping some clerical positions will open up next year.
Regardless, Ms. Ciancio said she is thrilled with how the program has turned out, noting that she sees a considerable change in each of the students since they started in September.
“I absolutely see a difference,” she said. “They are happy and they have accomplished something, and their social skills are improving because they are able to practice their skills on someone other than us. They are all proud of themselves.”