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Special education director: Students need more job shadow options

Warren senior Brandon Glende, 18, of Gurnee works with Jack Fallos, manager, on assembling a Toro Power Max snow blower during his time job shadowing at McClure’s Garage in Gurnee. (Candace H. Johnson)
Warren senior Brandon Glende, 18, of Gurnee works with Jack Fallos, manager, on assembling a Toro Power Max snow blower during his time job shadowing at McClure’s Garage in Gurnee. (Candace H. Johnson)

Brandon Glende, senior at Warren Township High School, spent a recent Friday morning at McClure's Garage with Jack Fallos, McClure's manager, learning how to build small engines on snowblowers. Glende was given the opportunity to have hands-on job shadowing in a field that interests him through Transition Services at Warren Township High School.

Transition Services gives special needs students the opportunity to gain work experience and a better understanding of their work goals before they graduate. The program serves 516 Warren Township High School students with a range of mental, physical and learning disabilities. The program works with students from when they enter high school until they turn 22.

Glende was the first Warren student to job shadow at McClure's Garage, which is Transition Service's first partner in the job shadowing program for a specialized field. Until now, students with disabilities have been able to job shadow at TJ MAXX at Gurnee Mills to learn retail skills, but there weren't opportunities in specialized fields, said Emily Bear, job coach for Transition Services.

Bear said one of the most important things students learn from job shadowing is how to ask for help.

"They have no problem asking for help from teachers or job coaches, but when they get out there with someone they don't know, they don't know how to ask for help," Bear said. "Self-advocacy is the biggest skill we teach."

Bernadette Komenda, transition specialist, said "[The students'] self-confidence grows 300 percent" after getting real-life work experience.

"They get to have a place in the community. They're so excited about it and can't wait to go back the next day. They spend their whole life in school, receiving service, and this gives them the opportunity to give back. Now they're productive citizens and that's everything to them," Komenda said.

Jack Fallos, manager at McClure's Garage in Gurnee, said he is comfortable teaching teaching students his trade from his experience training summertime employees. 

Glende listened as Fallos explained the different parts of the snowblower and what tools they'd need to put it together.

Glende said, "I like working with my hands. This is really different from a normal school day. I like fixing and building stuff."

Joyce Fallos, owner of McClure's Garage and Jack's mom, said they decided to allow students to job shadow at the garage because they enjoy "grooming kids to learn anything, from running the shop to fixing small engines, taking telephone calls."

"The diversity helps kids because it can help them in different jobs," Joyce said. "We like helping kids, especially these kids because they don't always get the same chances other kids do."

Glende said he has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and takes many general education classes alongside classes like Career Planning, where he tried a Project Discovery kit on small engine repair. That repair project inspired his desire to job shadow at McClure's, he said.

Komenda said fourteen different Warren classrooms use Project Discovery kits, which allow students to become familiar with more than 30 career tracks. For example, there are kits on retail, food service, cosmetology, engine repair and construction. The kits range from 10 to 90 days to complete, and special education students try 15-20 kits on average, Komenda said.

If students find a kit that interests them, Transition Services tries to match them up with a job shadowing experience at a local business so they can see what the job is like in the real world, Komenda said. 

"If they enjoy the job shadowing [students visit the business four times on average], we move on to job training [for up to 90 hours]. If they don't enjoy it – for example, they shadow in a kitchen and can't stand the smell – then they shadow a different job experience," she said.

Komenda said the program needs more businesses in specialized fields to participate. Transition Services has been working with the Gurnee Chamber of Commerce and Gurnee Village Board to find more participants.

Peg Merar, director of special education services at WTHS, said 50 to 60 percent of students with disabilities reported finding employment after high school in 2012.

"We want that percentage to be higher, so we want more local businesses to get involved," Merar said. "Our students are very good workers – they're dedicated, focused and committed to the job."

Transition Services needs job shadowing opportunities in the fields of automotive, carpentry, construction, dentistry and animal care, Merar said. Participation costs nothing to businesses and students are bussed from WTHS to the job sites.

Merar said many parents of students with disabilities worry, "'What is my child going to do when they're an adult?'"

"They have obstacles to traditional routes," Merar said. "We help families through this process by helping them prepare for their future."

Komenda said parents are very involved in the process.

"It's an opportunity for students to learn their strengths instead of viewing their disability as negative," Komenda said. "We work with them on resumes, job interviews – everything the general education students are getting."

At Warren's business center, students can gain work experience by answering phones, delivering xerox paper and toners and socializing with staff.

Merar said, "We work on the soft skills you need no matter what job you have – problem solving, following directions, finishing tasks in a timely manner."

Komenda said she meets with each of the 516 students one-on-one to ask them about their career goals and assess their strengths.

Bear said, "We are looking to create adults that will be productive members of society."

For more information on Transition Services, call 847-548-6108.

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