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By Shepherd Siegel
In our efforts to prepare all students to pass standardized tests and demonstrate evidence of academic achievement, we run the risk of forgetting that it is also our job to teach students how to be fully participating citizens in a democracy. The task of preparing students for a test pales in comparison to the larger responsibility of preparing them for life. The Career Ladders program in Seattle Public Schools continues to work with students with and without disabilities* who are approaching high school graduation. The program's primary purpose is to help students with mild to moderate disabilities find appropriate placements in college and work that will put them on the first rungs of success in adult life. The Career Ladders Postsecondary Project, funded by the Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education, supports contracts with two adult service providers, The Job Connection and Mainstay, who provide a "warm linkage" to students from the school-based programs such that there are seamless connections between school and adult services that prepare them for adult life.
Adult transition services, for those students who need them, work best when graduating students have already had the experience of taking their first few steps into adult life. The school-based Career Ladders program provides this with its Community Classroom and its Employment Skills Workshop. Thus, there are three essential and interdependent components that must be in place in order to effect successful school-to-adult life transitions for students in need of these services.
The Community Classroom is the first component, a supervised internship in which the student has more supervision – daily in fact – than a typical work experience placement, but less intensity than a supported employment placement (i.e., for a student with a significant disability). By working with large organizations, the instructional team is able to integrate and disperse interns among the regular employees without losing the efficiency of never being more than 10 minutes away from any given intern. Instructors simulate the competitive interview and hiring process, and once students have been "hired" (they obtain credit, but not pay), they receive accommodating instruction in performing ever-more-challenging job duties, and in learning adult social behaviors that will enhance success in the workplace. This on-the-job support anticipates and quickly addresses skill deficits, and maximizes student learning by using frequent, data-based instructional techniques. Previous and current incarnations of the program have placed students with Chevron Oil, the California State Automobile Association, the University of California Medical Center and other hospitals, Associated Grocers Corporate Center, Seattle Art Museum, Seattle Symphony, the Westin and other hotels, and King County Airport.
Secondly, the students attend a seminar-format Employment Skills Workshop once a week instead of going to their internship placement. This critical classroom component provides an environment where interns can safely share questions, concerns, anxieties and fears about being in the workplace, and celebrate their successes as well. There is no overestimating the value and power of peers as interns encourage each other through times of tedium or struggle. As the various realities of the work world, such as being on time or accepting criticism, are learned by one intern, that intern becomes the most powerful teacher of his or her peers. The weekly class teaches six essential curriculum strands: Job Skills, Job-Keeping Skills, Job Search Skills, Personal Growth, Interpersonal Growth, and Timely Topics (a lecture series on realities of the work world).
When they are well-implemented, these first two components of the program prepare a very high percentage of participants to enter post-high school life with a strong resumé, social skills, and a crafted and owned postsecondary career plan, which frequently includes college. But without the ongoing availability of transition services, the third critical component of the Career Ladders program, many of these students are likely to flounder and more frequently find themselves unemployed, institutionalized, or facing more serious barriers to competitive employment and college. In over 25 replications of the Career Ladders model, the first two components were established in new communities easily enough. But repeatedly, when it came to the more intensive and difficult implementation of effective interagency collaboration between a school district and an adult service provider, and the more innovative approach of making services continuously available to graduates, replication faltered.
The Career Ladders Postsecondary Project demonstrates OSEP's commitment to finding ways that school/adult service linkages can be developed and, as best practices emerge, replicated. Key to this long-term success will be using the results of the Career Ladders style of postsecondary services to convince one-stop centers, vocational rehabilitation offices, and nonprofit adult service providers that the ongoing availability of transition services, along with a cohort approach that allows and encourages long-term relationships to develop, is both effective and cost-effective.
There are three distinguishing features to the Career Ladders adult service approach: breaking open the job description, ongoing availability, and serving adults in cohorts. In its first incarnation, Career Ladders transition specialists kept careful logs and descriptions of how they served students (Siegel, Robert, Avoke, Paul & Gaylord-Ross, 1991; Siegal, Robert, Waxman, & Gaylord-Ross, 1992). Through analysis of these data and reviews of research, they distilled 12 transition services that were effective in supporting positive college and employment outcomes for graduates. These services "bled over" the lines that defined social worker, rehabilitation caseworker, tutor, counselor, and the like, and therein lay their success. Only in a system and only with providers who are willing to look at and respond to the full picture of a graduate's life will high rates of success be attained. The 12 services are further described in Table 1. They are Pre-Graduation Contact, Transition Planning, Follow-up Contact, Adult Agency Casework, Postsecondary Education or Training, On-the-Job Training, Counseling, Independent Living Skills, Resource Referral, Social Skills Training, Eco-systematic Intervention, and Job Search. The current project searched the community for the adult agency that most closely matched this approach; Job Connection and Mainstay "fit the bill," plus brought years of experience and their own enhancements to the endeavor.
Table 1: Summary of Career Ladders Transition Services
The success of these transition services rests upon the overarching principle of the ongoing availability of services, which liberates the provider/participant relationship. This is key to developing trust with the program participant. If the provider is being rewarded based upon the number of cases closed, that reality contaminates the process and the relationship, and trust between provider and participant is transient at best. Success rates will plateau but never enter the greater than 90% realm, which is what should be expected. There is a beautiful paradox at work here. If the participant knows that their case will never be closed, the reassuring trust that this allows increases the probability that the participant will become free of the need for services sooner. And because everyone's lives and the national economy have their peaks and valleys, the ongoing availability of transition services effectively buffers the negative impacts of either type of downturn.
Creating the conditions for long-term (greater than two years) relationships between teachers and students is now a common principle of K-12 education reform. Confluently, assigning transition specialists to specific cohorts (i.e., defining a caseload as students who will graduate from high school in 2005, 2006, and 2007) provides the institutional support for ongoing availability and delivery of the full array of transition services. Because they are able to take a long-term interest in each of the persons served, developing trust and an authentic relationship, the transition specialist becomes a weaver of community rather than the dispenser of time-limited and constrained government aid. This prevents burnout among providers, and ultimately delivers a higher and more durable success rate among participants.
The Career Ladders Postsecondary Project builds follow-up into the delivery of transition services, so that every participant is contacted at least once every six months, and questions about employment, college, income, benefits, job satisfaction, and the like are recorded, as well as a self-assessment regarding how much transition service was utilized by the participant. Reliable data are recorded because the "researchers" are the service providers and a high level of trust has already been attained. The success level of the postsecondary service is high because, in all three Career Ladders components, services are shaped by the lives of the participants.
* Note: This article focuses on the "warm linkage" between Career Ladders and The Job Connection, who together serve students without disabilities and with mild to moderate disabilities. Students with more significant disabilities are also served by the Career Ladders Postsecondary Project through a linkage between Seattle Public Schools' Transition Success program and Mainstay, who together provide supported employment and more specialized services for students with disabilities.
Siegel, S., Robert, M., Waxman, M., & Gaylord-Ross, R. (1992). A follow-along study of participants in a longitudinal transition program for youths with mild disabilities. Exceptional Children, 58(4), 346-356.
Siegel, S., Robert, M., Avoke, S.K., Paul, P., & Gaylord-Ross, R. (1991). A second look at the adult lives of participants in the Career Ladder Program. Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation, 1(4), 9-23.
Shepherd Siegel is Director of the Career Ladders Postsecondary Project and Manager of Career and Technical Education in the Seattle Public Schools, Seattle, Washington. He may be reached at 206/252-0733 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Citation: Gaylord, V., Johnson, D.R., Lehr, C.A., Bremer, C.D. & Hasazi, S. (Eds.). (2004). Impact: Feature Issue on Achieving Secondary Education and Transition Results for Students with Disabilities, 16(3). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, Institute on Community Integration. Available from http://ici.umn.edu/products/impact/163.
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