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Special ed students fill needs, learn life skills in West York district

It's not every day that students have the opportunity to get on-the-job experience in their own school, but the West York Area School District changed that this fall.

Through the state's Office of Vocational Rehabilitation, which helps individuals with disabilities find and maintain employment, the district hired its own students to fill open food service positions.

Three days a week, two students are working morning assistance jobs in the Bulldog Café — the high school's cafeteria — and two are working as dining attendants in the afternoon.

West York Area High School sophomore Skyler Spangler works in the school's cafeteria during a lunch period Monday, Oct. 15, 2018. Spangler works in a program offered by the state's Office of Vocational Rehabilitation in which students with disabilities can be employed through the high school in cafeteria positions. These students receive training using a job coach to prepare them for the workforce after graduation. Bill Kalina photo

"We're really proud of the partnership," said Traci Stauffer, director of special education and pupil services.

Often in high school, students learn how to be good workers in a classroom setting (which West York students already do in Life Skills) where they can make mistakes, get evaluated and grow from there — but after graduation they don’t have that luxury, she said.

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It's difficult to transfer job skill training to a real job, Stauffer added, so the district is excited to provide that opportunity right down the hallway.

The OVR reimburses the district for student wages and provides a job coach through Lincoln Intermediate Unit 12, helping students fill out their applications and prepare for all the necessary steps to employment.

Applicants did everything they would have done through the regular employment process, including food safety regulation training and an interview with the district's food services director, Scott Rutkowski.

Rutkowski said he's worked in health care for 25 years, utilizing long-term employees with disabilities through OVR and The Arc, and he had high praise for the workers.

"You know they'd be there on time," he said. "You know they'd do what they had to do." 

Seeing improvement: After board approval in September, four students were hired, and since then, they have already grown in initiative, teamwork skills and cooperation, Stauffer said.

"It's so great working with them," food service worker Carol Loucks said. "They're so willing, they're so cooperative. They want to do it."

Loucks said she's seen improvement from everyone and made four new friends.

"I like being active," said sophomore Skyler Spangler, 15. "Everyone's nice — they always have something for me to do."

Junior Lindsey Mauss,17, said she's enjoyed learning how to do new things, such as working with hot food, folding the laundry, getting the fruit and ice cream ready and setting up the cash register.

West York Area High School junior Lindsey Mauss works in the school's cafeteria during a lunch period Monday, Oct. 15, 2018. She works in a program offered by the state's Office of Vocational Rehabilitation in which students with disabilities can be employed through the high school in cafeteria positions. These students receive training using a job coach to prepare them for the workforce after graduation. Bill Kalina photo

"Sometimes it’s a routine job, but it can be a very complex routine job," job coach Betty Mallerich said.

Junior Horace Valcarcel, 16, acknowledged he had difficulty with his task at first, "and now I can do it, no problem."

Mallerich said working with the students "is a real privilege, and to me it’s an honor, because many of these students are capable of doing so much." 

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Starting earlier: Services through the OVR are not new, but in 2014, as a part of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, the U.S. Department of Labor tasked state agencies with providing more opportunities for students.

West York first collaborated with OVR last year through a partnership with York College, which employed five district students in custodial services two days a week. 

This year that program will be split into two semesters — three students are projected to be in the program this fall and three in the spring.

West York Area High School sophomore Skyler Spangler works with cafeteria staffer Jamie Eichhorn during a lunch period at the school Monday, Oct. 15, 2018. Spangler works in a program offered by the state's Office of Vocational Rehabilitation in which students with disabilities can be employed through the high school in cafeteria positions. These students receive training using a job coach to prepare them for the workforce after graduation. Bill Kalina photo

"Our goal as a district is to make kids as independent as possible so they will be successful when they graduate," Stauffer said.

West York's OVR students already have aspirations beyond school — Skyler wants to work in construction, and Lindsey hopes to become a veterinarian.

Win-win: In the high school, it's a win-win situation because the school would have been short-staffed otherwise, kitchen manager Dajalyn Shearer said.

"It's really a help to us," she said, adding that students are doing a great job — there have never been any complaints from staff or students.

Next year, the district hopes to expand the program to the middle school; eventually the plan is to add in other buildings and departments and offer maintenance and facilities jobs as well.

West York Area High School junior Lindsey Mauss sorts food in a cooler in the school's cafeteria during a lunch period Monday, Oct. 15, 2018. She works in a program offered by the state's Office of Vocational Rehabilitation in which students with disabilities can be employed through the high school in cafeteria positions. These students receive training using a job coach to prepare them for the workforce after graduation. Bill Kalina photo