A School of Real World Experiences

Elizabeth
Heubeck
Unique Work-Based Learning program of the Career and Technology Center Results in Graduates Who Are Highly Qualified to Get, Keep Jobs

High School Students Ebony Wilkens and Larry BruceAcross the country, young adults preparing to enter the workforce are feeling the sting of a tight job market. Competition for employment is stiff for the brightest, most talented youth, much less young adults with learning, emotional and neurological problems. But at the Kennedy Krieger High School Career and Technology Center, students are graduating with real-world job experience and industry recognized certifications that give them a competitive advantage.

At the Career and Technology Center, students with serious, often multiple, learning, emotional, neurological and developmental disabilities participate in a unique work-based learning program that is different from traditional vocational schools in that it exposes students to all aspects of an industry, rather than one specific job. Students develop the skills needed for success in a specific area of interest in one of four industries: Information Technology, Construction Trades, Retail and Consumer Services and Hospitality and Tourism. They also learn the skills needed for economic independence. The school's industry partners in each of the career clusters enhance students' learning by providing internships and on-the-job experience. Student-run businesses at the school are another important part of students' overall learning experience.

More than two-thirds of working-age individuals with disabilities in the United States are unemployed, according to a leading market research firm. The CTC, with 175 students enrolled next year, is on the path to shatter those statistics, turning out graduates who are highly qualified to work. In June, the school graduated its largest class of students yet 17 young men and women with various disabilities, of whom nearly half had jobs lined up immediately after graduation and the other half were going on to continuing education programs.

Lessons in industry

Students like Larry, who will be a senior in the fall, signal that the school is on the right track. As an underclassman, he chose to specialize in retail and consumer services and already, he has experienced first-hand several critical aspects of the industry. "I've learned how to deal with a variety of customers, the pleasant ones and the not-so-pleasant ones," he says with a grin.

Larry learned this, and other valuable lessons at school both in class and at the M & M Boutique, an on-campus, school-run store where he works. Stocked with consigned garments and accessories merchandised with the help of community volunteer Joyce Baker, the boutique is open to staff, students and the public who are interested in purchasing its upscale wares. "We do everything: maintenance, clean up, we purchase and unstock the stuff from the trucks," Larry says.

These lessons start in the classroom. "We teach students how to greet customers, maintain eye contact, use the correct tone of voice, handle disgruntled customers the skills they need to work anywhere," says Valerie Queen-Henry, head teacher of the Retail and Consumer Services Industry at CTC. Industry-related classes further indoctrinate students into the working world by introducing "on-the-job" practices. "In class, the students have to sign in every day, fill out a time sheet, just like they would at a job," Queen-Henry explains.

Students also learn by observing how successful businesses operate. "We went to Hecht's to see how the business runs on the receiving end: how they order things, see how they get stuff off the trucks, how they organize," Larry explains. Seeing first-hand how a big retail store runs was eye- opening as well as reassuring. "It was more complicated, but it was pretty much the same things that Ms. Queen-Henry taught us," he says. "Ms. Queen wants to teach us what to do when she's not there, like when we graduate. That's why she gets on us so much she wants us to get ready for the future."

Renovations support school mission

It took great vision to imagine a school where adolescents with a wide spectrum of disabilities could learn effectively and, in many cases, prepare to live independently upon graduation. But just as the staff members at CTC see potential in every student who passes through its doors, they were also able to envision the possibilities of a hospital becoming a school building. In 1999, Kennedy Krieger bought the 78-year-old Henry Bowles Building and the surrounding property, the former campus of Children's Hospital in Northwest Baltimore. Thirty-five students were enrolled at the high school that first year, as the buildings underwent extensive renovation. Designed by Baltimore architecture firm Hord Coplan Macht, the renovation, which was completed in the spring, included the addition of 11 classrooms, student-run businesses, a media center, accessible computer lab and cafeteria. Many of the building's original elements were retained, including a two-story meeting space and a gallery overlooking former operating rooms.

The school's design plays an integral role in its success-oriented, work-based learning model. While maintaining the building's architectural integrity, architect Chris Parts redesigned the interior to give it a modern, "mall-like" feel. Student-run businesses including a boutique, convenience store and credit union line the school's expansive common area.

A taste of the real world

Students Learn to Handle Money in School StoreStudents in the Retail and Consumer Services cluster can opt to work at the student credit union. All students at CTC use Bulldog Banking as they would any other credit union, performing transactions such as deposits and checking on available balances. The only difference is no actual cash is exchanged. "Students have daily professional records for which they earn points based on their performance in industry and academic settings. These daily point allocations, which are translated into industry and academic paychecks, get deposited into the students' bank accounts," says CTC Vice Principal Renard Adams.

In addition to the valuable lessons learned by the banking system come the rewards of owning a bank account. "With their money, students can go to the school store and buy things like snacks or CDs; they're also able to use it to subsidize campus events like dances," Adams says.

While every student at CTC has the opportunity to participate in independence-building activities like banking, two separate pathways to graduation guarantee more individualized support and lead either to a high school diploma or a certificate of completion. Regardless of which path they follow, all students declare an industry major and participate in work-based experiences that match their abilities and interests. Because, as CTC Curriculum and Instruction Coordinator Mark Trexler points out, these kids need more than a high school diploma to find and maintain employment post graduation. "Research shows that students with disabilities are not very successful finding employment even after obtaining a diploma. That's why we're giving our students academics and experience in work-based learning," Trexler says.

Not surprisingly, the lessons that stick with students are often those learned in their industry cluster settings. In the construction lab, a free-standing building where electric machinery whirs, sawdust flies, students turn wood slabs into an array of hand-crafted items. Izzy, who will be a senior in the fall, and classmate Thabo joke with one another like any adolescents, but they're serious when it comes to safety. "You can't play in there. You've got a lot of machinery you could cut your hand off," he says. Undoubtedly, he'll want to be in top form to participate in the large-scale projects planned for the future. "We're still learning how to use all the new tools," he says, adding, "Eventually, we're going to build a house everything from the electric to the plumbing."

Work-based learning opportunities abound

In addition to the eight student-run businesses on campus, several other opportunities exist for CTC students to gain valuable work experience. Some students with cognitive and language disabilities who require significant supervision participate in providing services to companies who contract with the school. A teacher oversees the project, but students do the actual work. For the League of Disabilities, eight students completed a 5,000-piece mailing in three days. These same students and others also quickly turned around 9,000 Easter eggs for an Easter egg hunt sponsored by Cylburn Park and the Conservatory at Druid Hill Park. Other students engage in more traditional work-based experiences, such as internships and job shadowing. Seventy five percent of students in long-term internships have been offered full-time jobs after graduation.

Earning industry certificates is yet another way in which CTC students can get a jump-start on their future. For instance, students learn skills specific to an industry's needs and then are tested on them. If they demonstrate a working knowledge of the given skills, they receive a certificate. The highly sought-after employer Microsoft is just one of several companies from which CTC students can receive a certificate.

A community of support

For students at CTC, language disabilities  are only part of the equation that leads to success. A strong clinical support system is another. "We have two psychiatrists on staff, as well as a full mental-health team that provides a lot of support," Adams says. Many related services are also available to students, including speech/language pathology, occupational therapy, physical therapy, assistive technology and audiology.

Because transitions from middle to high school and from high school to beyond tend to be particularly challenging for adolescents with disabilities, CTC offers its students formalized support during these periods. "They can't stay with us forever, so we have to get them to a place where they're able to transition into adulthood and independence," Adams says.

That's where the role of the school's transition specialists comes into play. After graduation, some CTC students will "transition" into adult service programs offered through the Developmental Disabilities Administration and Department of Rehabilitation Services. Others will find supported or competitive employment; still others will go on to college. Cristi Ford, one of CTC's transition specialists, focuses on preparing students for post-secondary education. "I really try to work with the families through the different community college programs and technical school programs to find the right fit for the student," Ford says.

Students Build Doghouse in Construction ProgramCatching up with 2002 CTC graduate Jasper Baker on his only night off from work, he sounds like any work-weary adult, but positive. "Work keeps me focused," he says. In the limited spare time he has between working jobs at two different area restaurants, he thinks about the future. "I'm looking to get my own apartment in August," he says.