Ava Seccuro co-editor-in-chief
When Amy Bell first saw her daughter, Liza, playing with preschool kids on a trampoline and managing all three of them by herself, Bell, like any other mother would be, was filled with a sense of pride with how responsible her daughter had become. Liza, 16, works as a part-time aid for preschool classes at Hawthorne Elementary School and is a “natural,” with children, Bell said. But what makes this experience so “amazing” for Bell is that her daughter was able to surpass people’s preconceived notions about what special education students can and can’t do.
For the Bell family, We Can Work (WCW) Program, sponsored by the special education department and the Department of Rehabilitation (D.O.R), changed that entire narrative as it gave Liza the opportunity to get hands-on job training and work experience like any other teenager would.
In the second year since its inception, the WCW Program and the D.O.R provide job support for students after high school who have an IEP or a 504, getting high school students started with early job training. In addition, they also offer a transitional program for students ages 18-22 who have received a certificate of completion, but not a high school diploma, to get additional training.
Students are given the opportunity to either work in the district as an aid for any one of the four schools in the BHUSD, or work in the cafeteria, the textbook room or the main office for example. Or, depending on their interest and schedule, work at local businesses such as Pet Express or Sprouts Farmers Market.
WCW coordinator Elizabeth Schwab took over the responsibilities of the program when former coordinator Anna Walker left the district. Although the program comes with gratification, it also comes with many steps and even more paperwork to get the student up and running in the work world.
One piece of paperwork that Schwab considers to actually be a benefit is that the student must fill out an HR packet just like every other employee in the district. As they also get paid through the district, Schwab said that filling out the same paperwork as formal district employees is great practice for the real world.
After Schwab finds students who have either an IEP or a 504, she not only sets them up with a representative from the D.O.R, but also grants them assistance for the rest of their lives.
“They do an [interview with] them, and they actually get signed up for Department of Rehabilitation Services, and that’s a really good thing because that means they’re already signed up and in the system. So, when they do graduate high school, Department of Rehab is able to kind of just step in and help assist them with whatever needs they have,” Schwab said. “So, it’s sort of like we’re a bridge; we’re partnering with them and helping them with that transition.”
As students like Liza are placed in the D.O.R’s system, students and their families can focus more on their needs and getting more hands-on experience.
Bell has seen the benefits of WCW not only through the feedback that Schwab gives her, but also from watching it live since Bell works where Liza aids.
“It’s amazing how she relates so well to the little kids and how well they relate to her,” she said. “They’re always holding her hand and it’s really sweet because we always thought that she would have been good with little kids, so it’s something that maybe in the future she could pursue as a career.”
According to Liza, she too thinks that her current job suits her well.
“I know how to take care of kids and I love them because they’re nice to me, they love me, they hold my hand and sometimes hug me. It’s a really good job for me. I hang out with them almost every Wednesday,” Liza said. “[My favorite part] is that I get to chase them, play with them, roll them around in a cart…They’re easy to take care of, but sometimes it’s hard to get them to eat their lunch cause they [run] everywhere.”
This program has helped many families just like Bell’s. For Shifra Safaradi, parent of Eleanor Safaradi, a 19-year-old in the transitional program working as an office aid for both Horance Mann and the high school, she views the program as a test for the real world.
“We want[ed] her to get more involved and to understand that she has to give and not only to take. When she gets her paycheck, she’s coming home and inviting us for dinner. [It makes me feel like] she can do something,” Safaradi said. “She’s more independent; she can be more involved with people and then [use this as] a test for real life, you know? It’s giving her a good feeling and it’s giving me a good feeling.”
Both Bell and Safaradi’s respective experiences also give Schwab a good feeling. Because she works with students in the “moderate to severe” program, she is limited to a smaller pool of students, but coordinating the WCW program allows her to widen the scope of students she gets to help.
One memory that really distinguished what the WCW program means to her was with former student Alex Fuhrman (‘19). After lots of trial and error with job training, Fuhrman landed his first job in the cafeteria and earned “meaningful” experience that he wouldn’t have gotten elsewhere.
“I get to work with a lot of different students and just the students that have come in from some of the other programs at our school. There are so many of them that are so grateful, and they’re so excited to have this opportunity,” Schwab said. “It’s been really cool for me to see some students that really need this job experience, get it.”
Despite the significant end result, there are some obstacles on the journey to get there. One of the “biggest obstacles,” Schwab said, was the fact that this program relies heavily on local businesses that are willing to take the time to train these students and find jobs for them to do. Moreover, if a student who is in the program currently needs extra help from a job coach, the D.O.R doesn’t have the facilities to provide them with one until after they graduate.
To combat this, Schwab either places said student in a job that takes place after school so that they don’t miss class, or the special education department sets aside a period or two once or twice a week for the student to be an aid for a teacher in that department and get more experience. Although it’s not a “perfect system,” Schwab hopes that with time she can “fine tune” some of the loose ends of this program.
“I really like Miss Schwab,” Bell said. “And I think that the program gives kids confidence. [It] is good because it teaches them a lot about responsibility at a young age and showing up to work on time, and you know, that these aren’t typical kids, right? So, all these little life skills are very important for them.”
As Safaradi agrees and wants the program to excel on an even grander scale, she feels that this program is so important because it gives her daughter experience that she can’t get by just sitting in a classroom and it gives her a chance to feel appreciated.
The WCW has given families like Bell’s and Safaradi’s “hope for the future,” Bell said, and that it not only teaches the students something, but also people in general that these students are just as capable to pursue a sustainable career for the future.
“She’s proud that she can do this thing. I think it’s very necessary for these kids to feel like they are doing something and that people appreciate them,” Safaradi said. “Usually when you see these kind of kids you always [think] that they are only taking from us. But, on the other hand, if you give them the right place and people around them, they can give.”