“Career readiness” is the phrase of the moment, with many school districts prioritizing a pathway for students who may not be college bound. Career and technical education (CTE) programs have skyrocketed, with about half of U.S. high school students—8.3 million—enrolled in them in 2016–17, according to Department of Education data.

Students with disabilities, however, are less likely to complete CTE pathways of study than their general education peers, leaving many districts lacking a comparable career readiness pathway for these students. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) enables children with disabilities to continue their schooling until age 21, yet many who complete school are not college bound and lack the skills needed to successfully secure stable employment.

In the Syracuse City School District in Syracuse, NY, our 4,800 special education students comprise about 20 percent of our student enrollment. We provide in-house programs that offer our special education students experiences outside the walls of their high schools, so they are able to develop the skills needed to be fully career ready. The most successful programs in terms of providing clear, measurable results we’ve found are transition programs.

Building Success Through Transition Programs

Through partnerships with a local hospital and two local higher education institutions, we offer three transition programs for high school special education students: Syracuse University OnCampus, the Onondaga Community College Campus-Based Partnership, and Project SEARCH. Each program is targeted at serving different student needs and outcomes.

Syracuse University OnCampus was one of the first of its kind in the country to provide true college inclusion using audited college classes for students with developmental or learning disabilities. It focuses more on social experiences, civic readiness, and academics, pairing special education students with college mentors who attend everything from seminars to sporting events with them. Students are also offered internship experiences in vocational areas of interest—one recently interned with the university’s internal mail service and continues to do so after graduation.

Families consider the program a positive change of pace compared to traditional classroom learning; they believe the exposure to job readiness skills is a benefit. “In the regular classroom environment, my daughter had limited time to experience things that were different,” says Patricia Baldwin, whose daughter spent three years—ages 18 to 21—participating in the Syracuse University OnCampus program. “OnCampus was a good outlet for her. They did new things every day. They started with a morning meeting and then went to class with other kids and took notes and tests and participated in the activities the other students were doing. She enjoyed going, and it taught her how to maneuver around a campus and helped her with job training. I would definitely suggest it to other families!”

OnCampus welcomes students to the university campus for the length of the school day—from 8:00 a.m. until 2:00 p.m., Monday through Friday. Students with disabilities are accompanied by an adult mentor who serves in a teaching assistant-style role, helping them stay focused and assisting as needed throughout the day. College students are paired with OnCampus students for various activities, including studying, working out, attending campus seminars and special guest speakers, and working on specialized art projects. The program also promotes career readiness through internships. Baldwin’s daughter worked as a file clerk one year and a paper shredder another year. She completed high school in 2019 with the foundation she needs to begin employment, in large part thanks to the OnCampus program, Baldwin says.

The Onondaga Community College Campus-Based Partnership (OCCCBP) is a socially integrated program that helps students gain independence and build basic entry-level work skills through on-campus internships in areas including facilities operations, food service, campus patrol, and community outreach tabling, as well as through academic coursework that is geared toward individual students’ skill levels to advance career readiness rather than a focus on college coursework.

Through the program, high school students with special needs partner with typical college peers during lessons, campus activities, and job sites to become members of the OCC community. These experiences provide practice to strengthen social and communication skills.

Yolanda Sheard’s son graduated in June 2019 and is currently working through the Office for People With Developmental Disabilities to find employment. During his time in the OCCCBP, her son worked in janitorial services, where he cleaned the campus and picked up materials for recycling. But Sheard says that more than the career experiences, the campus-based partnership provided her son with a sense of independence.

“I absolutely loved the program,” Sheard says. “My son learned things that I never expected him to pick up so easily. The teachers provided him with so many important skills. He became very responsible, and he learned so much in that one year. He learned how to catch the city bus so he could come home on his own. He learned how to use a cellphone and set the alarm clock to wake himself up on time. He became a different person. … He became less dependent on me and more independent.”

Project SEARCH, available through Upstate Medical University in Oneida, NY, serves as a vocational training program that prepares students with disabilities for success in integrated, competitive employment by introducing them to skill-based internships at the hospital, including in areas of surgical prep, day care, human resources, and more, all overseen by both special education staff members and job coaches.

Students spend four hours a day in a mentored internship, completing three 10-week internships over the course of the school year. They also spend two hours a day completing classroom time, where they learn skills development, interview training, math and reading for daily living, and more. The program has an impressive job placement rate, with 80 percent of students who complete the Project SEARCH program finding work within nine months of graduation.

“The things we are learning in Project SEARCH are things we haven’t been taught, and they are things we can actually use,” says student Andrea Rodriguez. Rodriguez hopes to work in patient care after completing the program, where she will be able to work directly with hospital patients.

Staff attribute the program’s success to the practical skills and on-the-job training students receive. Prior to starting the program, for instance, students—many of whom receive curb-to-curb transportation throughout their high school years—receive intensive training from staff to help them learn to independently navigate the city bus system.

“One of the big barriers for young adults with disabilities is transportation,” notes special education teacher Christine Gustke with the Syracuse City School District. “A hallmark of our program is that all students are expected to come to the hospital using public transportation. This opens up an entire world for them when they are seeking employment, and it is paramount to their success. The Project SEARCH program doesn’t just teach isolated skills—we are teaching real skills in a real environment, so when our students enter the real world, they have a leg up and they have already experienced these things.”

Cultivating Community Partnerships

In creating transition programs, a school district’s focus should be less on the organization you are collaborating with and more on forming a genuine partnership within your community. When the community sees your special education students as vital contributors, the path to a mutually beneficial relationship can begin.

A great place to start is to look in your own geographical area for a specific industry that is looking for skilled labor. Cultivate a relationship with those businesses to make them aware of the service your special education students can provide, and think about the doors the businesses could open to your students in return. These partnerships take time and trust to build, but remain persistent and continue spreading the message that your students are willing and ready to help fill your community’s need.

Keep the End Goal in Mind

Your overall goal is likely the same as ours: to remove all barriers that may be preventing special education students—and all students—from achieving success. With that in mind, family engagement also becomes critical to any program’s success.

“The minute our kids are identified as needing special education supports, I tell parents that it’s our job to put ourselves out of business—so [their children] don’t need us anymore,” says Syracuse City School District Director of Special Education Amy Evans. “It’s critical that we ask parents upfront what they want for their child. From there, we work together to make a plan to get there, providing every opportunity for the child to have experiences outside of the school walls that expand their access to their community and purposefully lead them toward their end goal.”

Parents and guardians are the most important advocates because they know their children the best. “We ensure that parents and guardians are included in the planning process for all new and developing projects and encourage their participation and input,” Evans explains. “We also remain accessible. We have an open-door policy and ensure that families have full access to our director of special education via phone, text, and email.”

“What made [the transition program] a good experience for me was that we had good communication,” said Baldwin of her daughter’s participation in the OnCampus program. “The staff talked with me every day, keeping me up to date with what was going on and what they were doing. I liked that they were always informative.”

To take engagement to the next level, the director of special education of Syracuse City School District hosts a quarterly community and parent open forum, in which families and community members are invited to speak about their experiences and address any questions or issues they may have. But you have to be proactive. As an urban school district, Syracuse City School District tends to see lower engagement in meetings for the committee on special education. The director began making quick phone calls to families at the start of a meeting, inviting them to take part via phone, and the district saw an immediate improvement in participation.

“I have found that the Special Education Department has always been a very willing and engaged partner in designing a program that works for my child,” says parent Tania Anderson. “The key thing for any district is to meet families where they are. Sometimes that means physically—sometimes that means emotionally or intellectually when it comes to explaining the language and the system, which is very complicated. To the extent that a district can be sensitive and empathetic and meet families where they are, that’s important. Families have to grow to rely on and trust you as the experts.”

Celebrate Success

Based on student and family feedback, we continue to find ways to improve upon our successes and build upon our shortcomings at Syracuse City School District.

Today’s students are tomorrow’s workforce. Ensuring that students with disabilities have every opportunity to use their abilities to make a valuable contribution to the community—while achieving personal satisfaction and independence—is a win-win for everyone.

Karin Davenport is a communications specialist at the Syracuse City School District in Syracuse, NY.