For Our Lady of Confidence Day School student Justin Wallace, school isn’t just about learning to function within the walls of the classroom. He’s preparing to be independent once he’s outside of them.
“I learned to believe in myself,” Wallace says of his time with the school’s Job Experience Program. “I learned I could do the work.”
Fostering this kind of independence is a driving philosophy at AOPS schools of special education. Our Lady of Confidence Day School (OLC) and St. Katherine Day School (SKDS) train and prepare their students through extensive job readiness and experience programs. Students work at jobs across the community, gaining the confidence and skills to become self-reliant, contributing members of society.
“The world of work is no longer just a classroom exercise,” says Julie Kurdziel, OLC job experience teacher. “By going into the community, students experience first-hand the reality of work with its requirements, demands, expectations, successes, and failures.”
The path to independence begins in the classroom, where students practice maintaining good eye contact, initiating question-asking, and efficiently transitioning from one task to the next. They gain additional skills as they progress through the program, such as baking, shopping, filing, and providing customer service.
These skills are refined and focused at each school’s PAES Lab — short for Practical Assessment Exploration System. The labs provide a work environment where students can explore and learn skills related to over 200 jobs in five work areas: business and marketing; consumer service; construction and industrial; computer technology; and processing and production.
Through practice and assessment, the labs allow students to identify their strengths, weaknesses, and interests as well as the jobs that would provide the best match. From there, each school connects participants with partner businesses in the community.
For example, when one OLC student expressed interest in working with his hands, the school found him a mentor in the Phoebe Wyncote continuing care facility’s maintenance department. Today, the facility’s entrance is adorned by two benches that the student assembled himself.
OLC is also partnered with Holy Redeemer Hospital, Holy Redeemer Thrift Store, Sisters of Holy Redeemer Province Center, Phoebe Wyncote continuing care facility, and Ancillae-Assumpta Academy. SKDS students work at Sunrise Senior Living in Haverford, Villanova University’s Second Storey Market and dining hall, Haverford Township Free Library, and Havertown Health and Fitness.
Each placement allows students to develop the professional and social skills to help them find jobs after graduation.
“Real work experiences offer opportunities to take and apply the knowledge that students have learned in the classrooms,” says Kathleen Gould, principal at SKDS. “Students learn as they deal with new and unscripted situations, and they have a job coach to help them navigate the situation. It is a win for the student and for the participating company.”
These programs also foster partnerships between AOPS schools. SKDS students work on a weekly basis at Archbishop Carroll High School, and OLC students work in Bishop McDevitt High School’s cafeteria and Lancer Lounge.
Kurdziel says former students regularly return to OLC Career Nights to share how the skills they developed through the program helped them find jobs — and independence.
Current OLC student Theresa Voce hopes to soon join their ranks. Through the school’s work placements, she’s gleaned the value of communicating with coworkers and knowing when to ask for help. But the program has also helped her realize the value of her own contributions.
“I have learned many things at work,” she says. “With different work placements, I’ve learned to trust myself and my abilities.”