STRIVE prepares young adults with special needs for work, independence

STRIVE prepares young adults with special needs for work, independence

STRIVE… Supported Training and Rehabilitative Instruction in Vocational Education… is a community-based, vocational training program for young people (ages 18-21) who graduated from a Gwinnett school with an Individualized Educational Program (IEP) diploma.

Most of the 51 students currently served in the program have moderate intellectual disabilities or autism-spectrum disorder, and some have secondary physical disabilities. Just as the students had individualized goals for learning as K-12 students, they have Individualized Educational Programs (IEPs) for their work in STRIVE as well. Weekly reports from both job sites document each student’s progress toward meeting particular objectives for skills and behavior.

STRIVE students take a school bus directly from their homes to their community job sites five days a week. GCPS works with employers around the county to offer the training at about 30 sites, including some sites at school system offices and GCPS schools. The STRIVE staff recruits local businesses to serve as work sites for students to train in unpaid positions. Some employers are referred to the program by others in the business community who have had positive experiences with their STRIVE student workers.

While the students interact with both customers and co-workers on site, they are supervised by a GCPS employee, a special education teacher or paraprofessional who works on site with groups of three to five students. STRIVE students work at two sites each week: a Monday-Wednesday-Friday job and a Tuesday-Thursday job.

The work day starts early... at 6:45 a.m.... and ends at 12:15 p.m. The vocational training is skill-based, with an emphasis on responsible, adult work behaviors. Click here to read a profile about STRIVE students who work at the ISC.

Abilities, not disabilities
The 11 teachers and seven paraprofessionals who work with the STRIVE students are quick to point out what a win-win the program is for both the students and the community. STRIVE Teacher Chip Underwood says STRIVE is more than learning job skills, citing the students’ personal growth during the program, even from semester to semester. “The STRIVE experience enables them to be better citizens… more confident, more mature, more able to contribute to their communities,” he says.

Teacher Cindy Wilkins notes that area employers have embraced the program, though, initially, some have low expectations. However, once they’ve seen the students in action, they come away impressed. “STRIVE really fosters new understanding and acceptance from the public [for people with disabilities],” says Ms. Wilkins. Mr. Underwood agrees, “It’s a more accepting world and the focus is on abilities, rather than what someone can’t do.” Click here for a list of STRIVE employers for 2008-09.

The program
Typically, students who are eligible for STRIVE are identified in the spring of their senior year of high school. A STRIVE teacher, serving as the student’s case manager, meets with the student’s parents to discuss the program, on-the-job training, at-home services, and services after STRIVE. An IEP is developed that targets the specific goals and objectives for the student’s experience in STRIVE. Registration and orientation takes place when the school year starts and the STRIVE program follows the school system calendar, ending for the year in May.

STRIVE students are enrolled at Oakland Meadow School, one of GCPS special education facilities, but they don’t attend classes at the school. All daily instruction is delivered at their community-based job site.

The instructional focus for STRIVE participants includes basic work skills, suitable work habits, and appropriate work behaviors. IEP objectives include work on task completion, following directions, social and work behaviors, communication skills, and attention to tasks.

STRIVE instructors also work with students to improve their work endurance, work performance, personal independence, and personal flexibility while on the job.

Allyn Braunstein, a STRIVE paraprofessional, sees the program as a way for students with disabilities to develop self-advocacy. Learning to make decisions for themselves and speaking up on their own behalf may be a new experience for some, she says.

For many students, making their own lunch or selecting their own clothes for the day are needed steps toward independence.

Families and STRIVE
STRIVE teachers have regular contact with parents, keeping them up to date on their student’s growth and development in the program. Mr. Underwood says families may not have a clear vision of what is possible for their student in adulthood, but the STRIVE program gives them an opportunity to experience the possibilities.

Parent Cookie Bernhardt says STRIVE has given her daughter Kristi opportunities she couldn’t have gotten any other way. “It’s really hard for students with special needs to get work experience on their own,” she says. Now in her third year in the program, Kristi has gotten a chance to try different types of employment, including retail and hospitality services. Ms. Bernhardt says her daughter, who has Down syndrome, has learned work skills, but also has become more independent and mature through STRIVE. Ms. Bernhardt credits caring teachers who have worked hard to ensure that Kristi’s experience was a good one as well as welcoming employers and co-workers, including the friendly school nutrition staff Kristi currently works with at Alton C. Crews Middle.

“STRIVE has been a great opportunity for Kristi,” says Ms. Bernhardt, “and I’ll be sad to see it end.” With Kristi’s 22nd birthday, she will no longer be eligible for the program. However, Ms. Bernhardt is hopeful that Kristi’s STRIVE experience has prepared her for a paying job in the future.

Graduates of the program have found work in the community, sometimes with the same employers who hosted them as STRIVE students. One STRIVE student has worked at the Gwinnett Center for a number of years after learning workplace skills in theater and banquet setup as a STRIVE student. A recent STRIVE graduate works in the Publix bakery, serving as a role model for the STRIVE students who work in the grocery store bakery now.

The STRIVE program helps students gain work and independent-living skills, but social development continues to be important. Oakland Meadow staff members encourage the students to stay involved in social events, sports, and recreational activities.
Special Olympics, coordinated by GCPS’ Lynette Swanson, is one of several social and recreational outlets open to STRIVE students and their families. Mr. Underwood says many of the families with students in the program network both formally, through support organizations, and informally.

Options and opportunities
While STRIVE is an excellent option for the students served in the program, it’s not the best choice for every graduate with an IEP diploma. Each spring, CGPS holds a transition fair for parents of students with special needs. The fair helps families to look ahead at options for their graduating student and to learn more about community resources. While some students with mild disabilities may be able to attend college or vocational classes with accommodations, many students are served best through other community programs, including the school system’s ADAPT program, sheltered workshop, supported employment, daytime programs that stress rehabilitation, and volunteer opportunities.

“I really recommend that families take advantage of the Transition Fair, STRIVE, and the other opportunities they have for their kids with special needs,” says Ms. Bernhardt. “If they don’t, they’re really missing something.”

You can learn more about these programs on the GCPS web site. Click here to visit the STRIVE web site or call 770-513-6806 for more information. Click here to learn more about ADAPT and here for details about Special Olympics in Gwinnett. Meet some of our STRIVE students when you click here for a slideshow and learn more about the STRIVE and ADAPT programs when you click here for a recent segment from GCPS-TV.