Opening the Door to New Learning Opportunities
In secondary schools across Ontario, students traditionally graduate from one of three high school pathways. Students graduating with an Ontario Secondary School Diploma (OSSD) earn a combination of 30 compulsory and elective high school credits. Essentially, this high school pathway prepares students for postsecondary education. Students who graduate with an Ontario Secondary School Certificate (OSSC) generally stay in high school for four years and work to complete a combination of 14+ compulsory and elective credits to graduate. Students graduating from this pathway tend to leave high school seeking employment within their community. The third high school pathway provides inclusive learning opportunities for not for credit special education students and students earning less than 14 high school credits. Students in this high school pathway potentially stay in high school until they are 21 and cross the stage to graduate with a Certificate of Accomplishment (COA). When students in this pathway leave high school they tend to be supported by parents, guardians and various community living support services.
At Beaver Brae Secondary School, the In School Support Team (ISST) identified a problem of practice that stemmed from a student learning need which became evident through many conversations at annual IPRC (Identification, Placement & Review Committee) meetings where students, parents and community partners expressed concerns that employers within the local community were not recognizing students graduating from the OSSC or COA pathways as valuable members of the employment sector. Reflecting on this information, the ISST then identified this to be a high priority student learning need and committed to supporting students in these two pathways by preparing them with essential employment skills throughout their high school journey so that they could potentially secure employment after graduation. Joining us on this endeavor was our community partnership with the Kenora Association for Community Living (KACL) Youth Employment Team. In a collaborative effort, we co-developed a pilot inquiry with a focus on creating and implementing a Special Education Youth Employment CO-OP Program; the first ever in the high school.
Our pilot inquiry was driven by the following theory of change action statement: If high school students are prepared with employment essentials and supported in the workplace, then community employers will recognize students graduating from OSSC and COA pathways as valuable contributors to the employment sector. With this being our mission statement, we then began to build our program in an effort to accomplish the following three goals.
- Create learning environments that prepare OSSC and COA students for employment,
- Educate community employers that students graduating from high school with high school certificates can be valuable contributors to the employment sector, and
- Support students in their co-op placements so that they experience success and secure employment when they leave high school.
Theory of Change Steps of Action
The Beaver Brae ISST worked collaboratively with the KACL Youth Employment team to co-develop and implement the special education youth employment co-op program. The school administrators were responsible for timetabling the program into the course calendar and assigning key teachers to deliver the curriculum and education assistants to support the students in all aspects of their learning journey. KACL director of children’s services & youth employment, Sheelagh Reid, worked behind the scenes to secure ministry funding for their organization to support the development and implementation of the program. The ministry grant money was used for youth employment training sessions, educational resources and KACL job coaches who supported students in their co-op work placements.
Discovering the Workplace
KACL consultant, Kelsey Craven and BBSS teacher Roy Iriam, co-created lesson plans and delivered a modified “Discovering the Workplace” curriculum that was scheduled into the students semester one timetables. In this classroom component of the program, students engaged in a variety of learning activities that focused on developing pre-employment skills like building visual resumes, interviewing, hygiene, social skills, respect, work ethic, time management and workplace safety. Specific learning goals were developed for each student that focused on the expectations of the Ontario Co-operative Education Curriculum and aligned with KACL’s four key areas of learning for employment; job responsibility, task competency, social skills, and personal power. The desired outcomes of the classroom component were to help the students identify their personal strengths, interests and goals for the future and to prepare them with essential employment skills needed to be successful in their semester two co-op work placements. Throughout the semester, the students engaged in a variety of learning activities that helped the instructors learn from them in order to find suitable co-op work placements based on their field of interest.
Co-op Work Placements
In semester two, students were placed in half-day co-op placements. KACL provided support to connect the co-op teacher with community employers, develop placements and create task analyses for each student. The task analyses outlined the student’s roles and responsibilities as an employee in KACL’s four key areas of learning for employment; job responsibility, task competency, social skills, and personal power.
Job Coach Support
All students enrolled in the special education co-op program were supported by job coaches from both KACL, teachers and education assistants at the school. Prior to supporting the students in their co-op placements, the job coaches were trained by KACL supervisor of children’s services & youth employment, Shannon Jeffers, and members of her team. This training included information about social role valorization, the importance of supported employment, teaching pre-employment skills, job developing and job coaching. The role of the job coaches is to support the students in their work placements. As students gain confidence, develop skills and natural supports in their work placements, the job coaching supports fade away and the students become independent.
This program opened the door to new learning opportunities for students enrolled in the OSSC and COA pathways. Many aspects of the program proved to be a huge success.
In partnership with Kenora Association for Community Living, the ISST at Beaver Brae Secondary School created a special education youth employment co-op program. The first ever at the high school. This program opened the door to new learning opportunities for students enrolled in the OSSC and COA pathways. Many aspects of the program proved to be a huge success. Educators, parents and community partners alike are extremely proud of the student accomplishments. Students engaged in the program developed essential pre-employment skills, participated in co-op work placements and demonstrated to their employers that they were valuable contributors to the employment sector. Community employers who were willing to support the program learned that “students with abilities” have the potential to secure future employment within their establishments. Now that the program has successfully completed its first school year, the team will fine-tune certain aspects of the program and work towards the goal of embedding special education co-op into the regular high school program.
Lisa Achilles is a vice principal at Beaver Brae Secondary School with the Keewatin Patricia District School Board.