TURNING 21 has extra significance for students at Trident High School’s Special Education Centre. It’s the age at which many students leave the centre, saying goodbye to the environment that has nurtured and taught them for years.
Teacher at the centre Yvonne Shepherd says the age signals a pending transition for students from the long-time familiar routine of life at the Special Education Centre, to life outside of it. The year of a student’s 21st birthday is the final year they can stay at school.
Assisting that transition by creating work experiences and activities designed to connect students to the community around them is the mission of the centre’s staff.
Knocking on the doors of employers in Whakatane, Yvonne says centre staff are looking to establish further opportunities for work experiences for their transitioning students – 30-to-60-minute sessions, with a centre supervisor alongside, enabling students to experience a hands-on role of working in a business or organisation.
While the programme has been under development for three years now – with eight employers currently taking part – including Whakatane supermarkets, the Whakatane District Libraries, Whakamax, and others – she says staff at the centre are looking to broaden the scope of work places involved.
“It’s about helping our students develop a new purpose once they leave school,” she says.
While students will go on to be involved in various supported community programmes, Yvonne says, “it’s about providing opportunities for them to broaden their sense of achievement, their sense of belonging. It’s about letting them see how they can fit into the community”.
Taking part in the programme, students preparing to leave school visit one workplace each week, rotating through various workplaces in five-session cycles to gain experience of carrying out tasks within that environment.
Preparing for a workplace visit sees students display “everything from nervousness through to great excitement,” Yvonne says.
“But there’s almost always a strong sense of achievement afterwards. If the placement has gone well, it’s such a positive experience for them,” she says.
“Sometimes they’ve simply enjoyed the work. Sometimes it’s a particular person at the workplace that they’ve enjoyed,” and sometimes, she says, “it will be something like loving the hi-viz clothing they got to wear”.
With the ultimate outcome being a student finding a role they can both manage and enjoy, the results of which are beneficial to a business or organisation and subsequently lead to payed work, Yvonne says the experience is not all about the money.
“Some students are capable of working on their own, others will need to be accompanied by their supervisor. And some will go on to paid work while others will work on a voluntary basis.
“It’s about getting them out and involved in the community. It’s about raising awareness,” Yvonne says.
“The more that people with special needs are seen out and about, the more opportunities there are for interaction, for people to get to know and understand them.”
She says it’s not uncommon to encounter people who are not very open to people with special needs. “Often they’re people who’ve never had contact with someone with special needs, they don’t know how to respond.
“The more visible and involved in the community our people are, the more others learn about them and the more comfortable they become,” she says. “It leads to everyone feeling more connected, and to greater possibilities for our students too.
“The work experience has significant benefits for our students,” Yvonne says. “We just need more employers to give them the opportunity.”
By Lorraine Wilson