The push to enroll more students in classes that will prepare them for college and careers could create new opportunities for young people with special needs.
Jackson Barber has an intellectual disability. He started working at Antioch Urban Growers while enrolled in the work experience program through North Kansas City Schools.
“I try to watch where the kids go and what they become interested in,” said farm owner Mark Samborski. “For Jackson, it was the grapevines. So I started him with a small pair of clippers, and as I see him performing well, I’ll give him bigger clippers so he can do more and more.”
Last year, with Jackson tending the vines, the grape harvest at Antioch Urban Growers was the biggest Samborski had ever seen.
Federal law requires schools to provide “transition support” as students age out of special education services with the goal of preparing them for life after high school. Services vary depending on the individual student’s needs, but there’s usually a work component. North Kansas City partners with community centers, grocery stores, food pantries and small businesses like Antioch Urban Growers to provide students with those experiences.
“I try to think outside the box and give them opportunities that are going to help them when they graduate,” said Alisha Matthews, the transition facilitator for NKC Schools. “Antioch Urban Growers is one of my favorites because they work really well with the kids. They have shown them how to do so many different things within a greenhouse on an urban farm, from planting to harvesting food.”
On a brisk morning in late fall, Samborski had students mixing soil for worm composting buckets that would be sent to the district’s elementary schools. He entrusted Rachelle McAdams with the recipe.
Rachelle has an intellectual disability and doesn’t like to talk, but she takes her job at the farm seriously: two scoops compost, two scoops peat moss, two scoops rice hull, into the soil mixer.
“Rachelle’s been a real leader here. Sometimes we have kids here in wheelchairs, and she’s very helpful,” Samborski said. “She’s always been very compassionate, kind – and she can do a lot, really quick.”
The goal is for students with disabilities to leave high school with a transferable skill set so they’re able to pursue post-secondary education or paid employment.
“More people need to know our students are extremely capable,” said Anthony Whitt, a job coach for NKC Schools. “They’re not as limited as people think. Sometimes it’s just going over the process a few times. Once our students learn the process, they’re very successful.”
Schools have been required to provide transition support for students with disabilities since 2004, before most states adopted college- and career-preparedness standards. When schools started making investments in career education, existing programs for students with special needs weren’t always integrated. That’s too bad, disability advocates say, because students with special needs stand to gain the most from more robust career education.
“We’re trying to make it so people with disabilities have more opportunities for employment in society, right?” said Allison Lombardi, a professor who teaches in the Special Education Program at the University of Connecticut. “There’s not a separate society for just people with disabilities, so it really doesn’t make sense for us to create programs that are so separate.”
Lombardi said schools are still tracking young adults with disabilities into prescriptive, low-wage work instead of giving them access to the classes their college-bound classmates take.
“If there’s an opportunity for adolescents with and without disabilities to learn alongside each other on the job, that’s really where I think we want to get with CTE,” Lombardi said.
The work experience program at Antioch Growers is for students with more profound disabilities and cognitive delays, but students with less severe disabilities are enrolled in career education classes with other high school students. They get support they need on a continuum, said Samantha Poindexter, the director of special education for the North Kansas City Schools.
“A lot of the time, it’s how the information is presented,” Poindexter said. “If we’re giving students verbal directions, are there students who could benefit from having those in writing?”
Those modifications get written into an Individualized Education Program, the document that outlines what special education services a student is entitled to.
Back at Antioch Urban Growers, Jackson has finished the daily farm chores. He still comes most days to help Samborski even though he graduated in May and doesn’t get paid for his work.
“I feed the fish. I feed the goats. I feed the chickens,” Jackson said.
His true passion, however, is his seed collection.
“It’s more spectacular than most agronomists,” Samborski said. “He literally has a seed for everything. He’s been waiting for these to develop.”
Jackson clutched a fistful of lemon balm.
“I make a tea out of it,” he explained.
Samborski would like to pay Jackson for all the hours he puts in on the farm, which is pretty much run by volunteers interested in sustainable agriculture. So last year, Samborski submitted a grant application on Jackson’s behalf to the Full Employment Council, Kansas City’s workforce development office. Together, they outlined a program of study that would let Jackson continue learning about plants and seeds. If state education officials approve their plan, other students with special needs besides Jackson could benefit.
“We’re trying to get an educational program that we can plug into the kids once they get out of high school and start building a curriculum and a green future for them,” Samborski said.
Meanwhile, Jackson is trying to find part-time work with the job skills he learned on the farm.
This week KCUR is publishing stories about career and technical education. You can read more stories about how schools are preparing students for the jobs they’ll have after graduating here.
Elle Moxley covers education for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.