School revamps program to ensure students succeed after school
The Emmetsburg High School special education team had a collision with reality. They knew they had a great transitions program – on paper. But then the northwest Iowa staff discovered that their students on Individualized Education Programs were not doing nearly so well in their post-high school years as they had assumed.
It started five years ago when the team, after being selected for a state grant called Model Employment Transitions Site, decided to get into the nitty gritty of their outcomes.
“We thought we were doing great stuff,” said Deena Fries, the middle school special education teacher. “The students had awesome plans, we thought. But we found out that when the students left here, we realized that everything fell apart.”
One student, in particular, threw Fries for a loop.
“On paper, she was very successful,” she said. “And we thought, ‘wow, we started you out so well.’ And today, she has several children, lives in a low-income rental, isn’t employed.
“We needed to examine why this was happening.”
And they did.
“We found that we were doing a lot of good things,” Fries said. “We just needed to put them together with the right emphasis.”
One of the first things they looked into was why students would quit a job once they graduated from school.
“They may have gotten the job through the school, such as working at McDonald’s,” Fries said. “When they exited school, the student may very well have been thinking, ‘I don’t want to do this.’ The students needed more overall input and ownership into their career planning.”
Thus, the school started what they call Positive Personal Profiles, or P3’s. Simply put, they are personal reflections – something that the district itself has embraced and expanded all the way down to the fifth grade for both special education and general education kids.
“This needed to be for all the kids,” said Principal Mike Embrock. “The P3 explores, ‘What are you going to do with your life?’ ‘What is your plan?’”
Doing the P3’s isn’t a one-time deal, but used regularly to see if interests are changing. From there, students explore fields that match their interests. The goal is to work toward all high school students having job shadowing, internship, and career exploration opportunities, as well as possibly visit the various companies and organizations.
Perhaps most important, the school involves parents in this process, something that took some initial coaxing to get them through the building’s doors.
“The normal time we see parents is during an IEP meeting in which we have a team of people here,” Embrock said. “It is overwhelming and even scary for a lot of our parents. There are a lot of negatives.”
The school instead created a family engagement night in which agencies were set up at tables, and students and parents were given 10-minute slots to meet with all of them. In addition to showing families what was available, there were some unintended yet positive consequences.
“A parent learned that he himself could receive services through Iowa Workforce,” said Becky Kjellsen, a high school special education teacher and instructional coach. “The family engagement night was so nonthreatening. It was one of the biggest things we have done. It was such a positive experience for everyone.”
And parent-teacher conferences became less foreboding.
“Since we started using the P3’s, the conferences are more positive,” Fries said.
Beyond academics and building career interests, teachers also focus on soft skills – anything from making eye contact, shaking a hand to learning how to interview.
Shalene Naig, a high school special education teacher, who works with Level 1-3 students, said that even before the students start job shadowing, she emphasizes the soft skills to ensure the students are ready to meet potential employers.
“A lot of these students are not exposed to working,” she said. “I work to expose them to all kinds of career choices, and get it into their mind frame, ‘What do I want to do after school when I leave this building?’”
You don’t have to ask 16-year-old Zach Doidge what he wants to do. The Emmetsburg junior has his career pared down to two possibilities: something in law enforcement or a welder.
“All of my family members have been in some kind of military training,” he said. “I would like to do something that helps people. And welding is interesting – it pays pretty well. With a degree from Iowa Lakes Community College, it ends up paying $25 an hour.”
Doidge is already quite familiar with working, having stocked and bagged at a grocery store – a job he enjoys.
“I like it because I am the type of person who loves chatting,” he said. “I used to be real shy, but I’ve learned that you need to speak out and speak your mind and do what you want to do.”
As for Emmetsburg High School, don’t expect any future collisions with reality.
“We are going to follow up with our students several times,” Embrock said. “We want to know what is working, what isn’t, and to make sure to correct things if necessary.”