Making a smooth transition: Life after high school
Haley Keeling’s eyes light up when she recalls the day she was offered her first job at the Shores, a retirement community in Pleasant Hill. A senior at Southeast Polk High School, Haley attributes her landing the job to a program at her school that provides pre-employment services to students with disabilities.
“I was really nervous because it was my first job and first interview,” Haley said. “We just practiced for interviews and practiced answering questions. That practice really helped.”
According to Lee Ann Russo, resource manager for the Iowa Vocational Rehabilitation Services (IVRS), the program called the Vocational Rehabilitation Intermediary Network, or IN, is the first and only program of its kind in the nation.
“IVRS currently serves 12,500 individuals throughout the state, 40 percent of whom are either in high school or postsecondary education,” Russo said. “While we have staff assigned to every high school in Iowa, with 22,000 students in special education, prior to the IN, we weren’t able to serve everyone.”
That need to expand work-based learning opportunities became even greater with the implementation of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, or WIOA. The federal legislation, which was signed into law in 2014, marked the first reform of the public workforce system in 15 years and, among other things, required stronger alignment of services to workforce needs. This included providing supports for all students receiving educational services under an Individual Education Plan (IEP) or Section 504 Plan.
An IEP is a legal document that spells out, among other things, the special education services, activities and supports that each student will receive in school. 504 Plans are covered under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which ensures students with disabilities receive appropriate accommodations or modifications.
In addition, WIOA requires that pre-employment services be provided to students with disabilities. State vocational rehabilitation services must dedicate 15 percent of its funding to support these pre-employment transitional services.
To meet this requirement in a way that best served students with disabilities, IVRS awarded intermediary network grants of $100,000 to 14 Iowa community colleges to work with schools in their regions to expand work-based learning opportunities. Patterned after Iowa’s Work-Based Learning Intermediary Network, which provides relevant work-based learning activities for students and educators in every region of the state, the IN was specifically designed to meet the needs of students with disabilities and help them transition from high school into additional training, education or the workforce. The first grants were awarded in the fall of 2016, with most schools receiving services by January 2017.
“Our goal is for every special education student in Iowa to have a paid work experience while in high school,” Russo said. “It increases their success rate on the job by 50 percent. IVRS has set a goal to do this with the help of our IN coordinators and other initiatives IVRS supports.”
Emily Willett is the IN work-based learning coordinator at Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC). In addition to Southeast Polk, she also serves high schools in Indianola, Norwalk, Urbandale, West Des Moines and Waukee. She is one of 14 coordinators across the state who work closely with special education teachers to identify gaps and how they can work with schools to support students. Willett’s goal is for each of her students to graduate high school with some type of work-based learning experience where he or she has the opportunity to explore careers and interact with employers. Haley is one of over 200 students referred to Willett for assistance and support.
“Because I have six schools, I can have more one-on-one interaction and really connect with the students,” Willett said. “My work differs based on the needs of each school. At Southeast Polk, I work closely with one special education teacher who has a career-based class. At Valley High School in West Des Moines, I work with the transition coordinator who brings in multiple special education teachers.”
Willett is at each of her high schools between two and three times a month where she collaborates with IVRS counselors and teachers, meets individually with students, conducts classroom activities and partners with the Iowa Work-Based Learning Intermediary Network for larger-scale events. She provides programming in such areas as career assessments, preparing students for career fairs, resume writing support, mock interviews and postsecondary planning, among others. Last year, over 300 students took part in these pre-employment transitional activities. Ultimately, the goal is to prepare students on IEP and 504 plans to successfully transition from high school into the workforce, postsecondary education or training.
“A lot of the students I work with are high- functioning,” Willett said. “Many have the ability to go on to postsecondary education. I work with them to help them find their voice and connect them to services available on campus so that they can be successful.”
Willett says that students who receive support gain more confidence in themselves and in their abilities. Activities and events give students the opportunity to practice what they are learning, all of which helps them see what they are capable of accomplishing.
Haley has worked with Willett for almost two years. When she was first referred to Willett, Haley was very shy and uncomfortable around people she didn’t know. Together, they worked on voice projection, interviewing, and being aware of mannerisms and nonverbal cues.
Today, Haley continues to work part-time as a dietary aid at the Shores, a position she has held for over a year. As part of her Four-Plus program at Southeast Polk, she is completing a fifth year of high school with plans to graduate in May. In cases like Haley’s, IEP teams may determine that a student would benefit from an additional year of high school in order to meet his or her post-school goals. During this year, each student’s unmet needs in the areas of living, learning and working are addressed. The support and services helped Haley realize her dream of working in the hospitality services industry and the possibility of enrolling in college.
“I don’t think I could have done it on my own,” Haley said. “It would have been really stressful and overwhelming.”
More confident in her abilities, Haley no longer avoids being in new situations around people she doesn’t know. She recently signed up to attend a business and marketing career discovery day on Des Moines Area Community College’s Southridge campus, an event organized by DMACC’s Career Discovery Network, which is part of Iowa’s Work-Based Learning Intermediary Network. This year she earned her first academic letter and was recognized during a school-wide honors assembly. She is also taking Accounting I this term, which is a prerequisite for the Accounting II class she plans to take in the spring and earn college credit through DMACC.
Next year, Haley plans to enroll in DMACC’s Hospitality Business program and has looked into receiving support through Strive. The Strive program provides transition assistance to special education students who enroll in a vocational program at DMACC. The goal of the program is to help students secure employment in the field for which they are being trained. Strive can provide resource assistance, tutoring and study skills assistance, accommodations, advising, progress monitoring, and campus service information. Haley’s IEP team will reconvene in the spring to analyze Haley’s needs and explore all of her options.
“Without these supports, it would have been a longer process for Haley,” Willett said.
Russo says that success stories like Haley’s are helping to change the public perceptions of students with disabilities and show that with the appropriate supports and accommodations, they can achieve academic and career success.
“It is the right thing to do because students are our future,” Russo said. “Students are about 25 percent of Iowa’s population, but 100 percent of our future.”
The Iowa Work-Based Learning Intermediary Network is a statewide network comprised of 15 community college regions that work with every Iowa school district to provide work-based learning opportunities for students and educators. These opportunities allow students to explore careers and make informed decisions about future college majors and job training. Supported by a $1.45 million state grant appropriation administered by the Iowa Department of Education to develop and expand work-based learning opportunities across the state, the Network builds relationships within the education system and regional businesses to provide opportunities for students to experience different careers.