Job training program teaches work and life skills to special education students

Keely Good excitedly showed her friend Carter Hammer around the thrift store, pointing out where various items could be found. After that, she showed him how to ring up customers with the cash register.

For the past semester, Keely and Carter have both worked at different businesses around town as part of Wrangell High School's special education class on-the-job training program to help them gain work and life skills for after they graduate.

The schools have always had some form of job training for general education students, but last year, Ryan Howe, director of the special education program, began approaching businesses to see if they would be interested in participating.

"We have to ensure, not just the K-12 experience, but the rest of their lives, that they're as productive and happy and independent as possible," Howe said. "Independence is the No. 1 goal, always. I think our students are really digging it."

Though Howe made the inroads for the job training, it was special education teacher Mikki Angerman and paraprofessional Christy Good, Keely's mom, that ran with it, he said. The duo have made a point to have students try different jobs, such as helping customers at River's Mouth Resale thrift store, housekeeping at the Stikine Inn, bagging groceries at Wrangell IGA or working in the kitchen at Sweet Tides Bakery.

"All of us have jobs with things we like to do and we don't like to do, so them being able to find that out about themselves in a safe setting is excellent," Angerman said. "I really want to keep creating strong partnerships (with businesses) so we can keep doing this for kids."

According to the most recent information (2020-2021) from the National Center for Education Statistics, students ages 3 to 21 who received special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Act totaled 7.2 million, or 15% of public school students. The law requires public education be available to students with disabilities to receive services until they are 22 years old.

Keely, 21, will age out of special education next year. Good said seeing her daughter find success in the job training program has given her a huge amount of joy and hope for Keely's future.

"Our goal in our jobs is we want to be able to support our kids with disabilities in this community because, really if we don't, they don't have anywhere to go, and I don't know what they would do," Good said. "When they connect with success, the lightbulb comes on."

At first, Keely was excited to work at Sweet Tides. However, after trying it out, she found she didn't like working with textures of the various ingredients. She went over to River's Mouth Resale, where she's been thriving. "Keely's been great. She helps me a lot," said store manager Alexis Fiske. "We've been working with her on organizational skills. She's made big improvements, especially with counting money."

Angerman said the businesses have been very generous in allowing the students to find what jobs they do and do not like.

Carter began getting work experience over the summer before the job training program began. His mom, Holly Hammer, said he was able to do a ride along in a garbage truck and work in maintenance at SEARCH. After graduating, Carter would like to be involved in mechanical work.

"It's his first time today ever (at River's Mouth) and he's also at the Stikine Inn doing housekeeping in the mornings, and now in the afternoons he'll be coming here now instead of IGA," Hammer said. "Last semester he was at the (parks and recreation department) pool in the mornings. I love it. It's a really great experience."

Since the school has laundry facilities, the special education program is working with River's Mouth Resale to wash their incoming clothing. That way, students can learn more basic life skills, like doing the laundry and folding clothes.

Fiske, who is the mother of a special-needs child, sees the benefits in the program.

"It builds confidence for life. I feel like a worry all parents have is, 'How will my children cope in the real world,'" Fiske said. "A lot of people don't realize they need (these skills) to survive. I can't hold my daughter's hand forever. She's going to have to do things on her own. ... I feel that's the work we're trying to do here."

Angerman has also created an evaluation sheet to track student progress, where businesses are able to rate on various areas of students' progress. "Then they let us know if they'd be interested in doing it again," she said. "It's nice having it for the student's file because they can use that for employment later. This gives me a lot of faith in what they will be able to do once they leave here."

But it's not just the special education students who are getting life and job skills out of the training program, Angerman said.

"I've learned, especially this year, that these kids enrich the people around them," she said. "The joy that they can find in some of the things we might find monotonous, just being around that really does make you feel lighthearted."


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