The transitional period after students leave the school system on-Island is difficult for any student, but there are more barriers in this realm for students with disabilities.
Fortunately, Island schools are looped in with Martha’s Vineyard Community Services in the STEP program, and through that connection they are in regular communication with dozens of employers seeking excited students looking to get their start in the workplace.
Emily Becker is the transition specialist for the School to Employment Program (STEP) — a program of MVCS Disability Services that offers year-round support for students who are preparing for their next steps after high school, providing an opportunity to develop skills they can take into the workplace or college.
Becker said every student, with or without a disability, has different needs and goals. And for each person who has barriers to employment, Becker said, the goal of STEP is to first identify those goals, and understand that person’s strengths and challenges.
For students between the ages of 14 and 22, the preparations they take early on will better prepare them for a career.
To prepare students, Becker said, there is a whole range of supports offered. “We help some write résumés, and help with some interpersonal and soft skills that are extremely important to be successful in the workplace,” Becker said. “It’s Important to be able to be professional, see things from multiple points of view, and be good at resolving conflicts.”
She added that providing opportunities for a path to employment for students with disabilities provides confidence and pride, which build self-esteem.
In any school, Becker said, when students are being taken out of the regular classroom and brought to the special needs room, there can be a stigma attached to that. But having a job connects kids to something bigger than themselves, and makes their relationship with their community stronger and more tangible.
With opportunities for job shadowing diminished because of the pandemic, Becker said, STEP has been focusing on soft skills like self-advocacy, time management, and personal planning, and has been conducting programs online through Zoom.
She said students can sign on and speak directly with local business owners through virtual “job shadowing” seminars, although she stressed that there is no substitute for hands-on, interactive learning in the workplace.
Before Becker left on maternity leave, she was meeting with her small groups of three students twice a week, and had individual meetings with each student as well.
The pandemic created many new social barriers for students with disabilities, and exacerbated existing ones, but Becker said STEP offers support in those areas by providing fun and fulfilling programming that allows kids to interact with their peers.
For Becker, finding a role for students outside of school is only part of the objective. “I want them to be able to find a job they truly love. Maybe it’s the people you are working with that you love, or the activity you love; I want to get them in the workplaces to really spark that passion,” she said.
Beth Wike, disability services program director at MVCS, said STEP is funded through a contract with the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission (MRC), which helps individuals with disabilities live and work independently.
Through that state and federal funding, a broader program called Island Employment Services (IES) offers a pickup for students once they graduate from high school, or age out and enter the job market. IES is offered to young people enrolled in a school program.
What is unique about STEP, Wike said, is that it complements the programs in Island schools, as they are mandated to have transition planning for students. But STEP can focus more personally on the individual, and help them determine what role they could see themselves working happily in.
“We can either start from scratch, or pick up wherever they are. So for some students, we start with exploring what different vocations are available, and what the pathway is to get there,” Wike said. “Then we have other students with post-secondary interests, so the transition specialist is able to work with the student as well as the family to help them in moving on to college.”
She said STEP facilitates calls and meetings between colleges and families in order to communicate the student’s specific interests and support needs.
One major goal of the program, according to Wike, is to make an impact on students as early as possible by working directly with the school system.
The unique, long-term objectives of the transition support program allows special education professionals to truly get to know students and work with them long-term, so their services and support can grow as the student does. “We don’t have a one-size-fits-all model — it’s more about working along with the students’ progress,” Wike said.
Wike stressed how many support options are available to students with disabilities. If a young adult wants to live in a city after school, Wike said the transition program could provide travel training, to prepare students for using public transportation. And if kids are going to have a job, they need to bolster their money management skills. Wike said once students receive their first paycheck, someone from Martha’s Vineyard Bank might come in and teach them about creating and maintaining a bank account, for instance.
For now, Wike said, students are hungry for socialization and connection with their peers, so STEP is providing regular peer group meetings so they can catch up with their friends.
But for any young person, working in a role they enjoy allows them to feel connected to a larger whole, which provides self-purpose and self-confidence.
“It’s waking up in the morning and knowing that you have some steps ahead of you that connect you to something bigger, and having a valued role, no matter what that might be,” Wike said.
Hope MacLeod, director of student support services for grades 8-12 at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, said the services offered by the high school have changed over the years as the stipulations for coverage of MRC have changed.
In addition to focused support for individuals with disabilities, MacLeod said, the school has a class for students who might or might not actually have a diagnosed disability but may need extra support, called transitional planning.
That class is available for second-semester juniors and first-semester seniors, and students can choose to take just one semester or both.
And for those with more significant needs, the Voyager program allows students ages 18 to 22 to go out with teachers and assistants and sample different jobs in the community, to see where their skill sets lie, and where they feel most comfortable.
She added that Voyager has launched a new initiative called Purple Paws, where students in the program bake dog biscuits and sell them online.
“Whether it’s with animals, as a teacher’s assistant in the school system, in retail, ice cream scooping, or working on a farm, we are looking for wherever students might find the most success and happiness as an adult,” MacLeod said.
She explained that schools are mandated to educate students with disabilities until they are 22, so around age 18, the high school invites the Department of Developmental Services and other supports to family meetings with students.
Even though those groups aren’t actively providing services yet, MacLeod said the meetings allow families to convey the needs and goals of students directly.
“They might not be providing services yet, but they are understanding what those needs might be so they are prepared for when that child turns 22 and enters into other programs,” MacLeod said.
The transition team looks at whether students want, and would benefit more from, a self-directed plan or a non-self-directed plan, then tailor that plan to meet their needs. “If the child wants to live in a city, learning skills to live here on Martha’s Vineyard aren’t going to be the best match,” MacLeod explained.
She highlighted the unique opportunities that are available here, and said the ultimate goal in transition planning is to create a road map for students to make an impact on their communities.
She added that she wants students with disabilities to feel encouraged and confident when applying to jobs or secondary education.
“Sometimes it’s not always the places of employment that are lacking, it’s the confidence of consumers to apply to jobs, or it’s a barrier like they could do that job, but can’t get transportation there,” MacLeod explained. “Our workplace is a place where we meet friends, and where we feel like we have an impact on our community. When anybody has a job like that, they are much happier and productive, and give back to the community in so many ways.”