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BRIGHT FUTURE: Work program gives special education students experience

Ben Hillyer / The Natchez Democrat — Natchez High School senior James Carter sweeps the cafeteria floors after the final lunch period Wednesday afternoon. Carter is part of the school district’s special education work experience program that helps teach work skills and job experience for student with disabilities.

NATCHEZ — Using a patented, counter clock wise washing method, James Carter meticulously cleans each table in the Natchez High School cafeteria with a smile from ear to ear.

For two hours each day, the NHS senior escapes the normal classroom routine and joins other cafeteria employees to wipe down tables, sweep the floors and take out the trash.

“I like working in the cafeteria,” Carter said. “It’s a lot of work sometimes.”

During those 10 hours each week, Carter learns valuable skills that will prepare him for life after graduation in the working world.

He and 10 other seniors at the high school, work as part of Natchez-Adams School District’s special education student’s work experience program.

The program provides job site work experience, on and off campus, as part of a training program for students with disabilities.

The students must train for a year, usually in 11th grade, to make sure they can complete tasks and follow directions before qualifying for the paid positions.

“With these jobs, the students become stake holders in their little community at the high school,” said Adrienne Lacey-Bushell, director of special services. “It gives them a sense of confidence to where they say, ‘I have a disability, but I’m employable.’

Maggie Burns checks in Trayvone Anderson at the high school front office. Burns is also a student in the work experience program.

“They love it and take pride in their jobs.”

Students have various options for work locations including the cafeteria, front office, library and even sometimes downtown at Braden administrative building.

For senior Maggie Burns, the front office is a perfect place to express her conversational and social skills.

“I talk too much in the office,” Burns said laughing. “They give me papers to deliver, mail to sort, and I write people slips if they come up to the front office.

“It’s fun in the front office.”

Burns is currently in her training period and isn’t receiving a paycheck just yet, but that isn’t stopping her from making her shopping list a little early.

“I’m going to buy a skirt and some new dress shoes,” Burns said. “I can’t wait.”

Bushell said the paycheck is an incentive for the students to continue working, but that the real payoff comes after they graduate.

“Although there is a paid component, much of it is instructional,” Bushell said. “These students not only learn the practical applications of their studies, they become actively contributing citizens and community members through the services they perform.”

During the latter part of the student’s senior year, the Mississippi Department of Rehabilitation Services works with the students attempting to find them a permanent job after they graduate.

Recent NHS grad Shaquille “Shaq” Williams worked in the library during his senior year and is currently trying to secure a job at McDonald’s in Natchez.

“All the teachers cried when I left because I used to run errands for them and now I can’t anymore, so they’re all sad,” Williams said smiling. “I think I did a good job in the library.”

Williams admitted that he was also sad after leaving his work in the library, but for a different reason.

“I miss the paycheck, that’s for sure,” Williams said. “I’d get my paycheck, cash it at the bank and go straight to the mall to buy a new outfit.

“I love looking good, but I haven’t bought any new outfits in a while.”

For Carter, the paycheck at the end of the month lasted a little longer.

“I try to save my money,” Carter said. “I give some to my family for clothes and food, but I save some too.”

Special education teacher Phyllis Lewellyn said hearing comments like that from both students reassures her the program is working.

“The whole point of the program is to give them as much experience as they can before they leave us,” Lewellyn said. “From punching a time card to getting a paycheck, those are things they need to know before entering into the community.”

Both Bushell and Lewellyn said they would like to see the program continue with more local business participating to find positions for the students in the program.

“It’d be great to find local businesses in the area that would take some students who can work independently and give them that experience,” Bushell said. “Or consider hiring the students when they have part-time positions available.

“Those are conversations that need to be had in order for this program to continue expanding.”

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