Crain’s Cleveland Business, August 27, 2017: Two Summit County school districts have received a combined $250,000 in grant money to help them start earlier in preparing more students with developmental disabilities to join the traditional workforce instead of going into sheltered facility-based workshops after high school, which has been the default path for many.
For local employers, these students might be ideal for jobs that they are otherwise struggling to fill, say people close to the programs.
“There are a million jobs out there, and this population could provide economic benefit by providing reliable people to fill them. They are an untapped resource,” said Andrea Dobrin, chief operations officer of Cleveland-based Koinonia Homes, which is helping administer the program with the Woodridge Local School District, which covers most of Peninsula and parts of Cuyahoga Falls and Akron.
Jobs for which these students could be suited include stocking shelves, retrieving items in warehouses, working in greenhouses, performing repetitive manufacturing tasks, loading trucks, prepping food or cleaning hotel rooms, she said.
“A lot of our people can do those kind of jobs, but we need to help them imagine it first and start earlier than we have been to get them ready for it,” Dobrin said.
Woodridge and Copley-Fairlawn City Schools both received $125,000 over two years from the Summit County Developmental Disabilities Board for this pilot programming. Copley-Fairlawn selected United Disability Services (UDS) of Akron as its provider of job preparation services.
“Workshops are a great opportunity for some of our students, but many others are fully capable of working in community-based jobs, and if we can front-load supports starting at 14 or 15 years of age, have them get more experience in the community and get involved in internships and summer jobs, they will be better able to live more independent lives after graduation,” said Billie Jo David, director of communications at the Summit County board.
The programs, which started in January, began with thorough assessments of each student’s abilities and interests, and will move more into job coaching and work site visits as school resumes this fall. Teaching the aides in the schools to act as job coaches is an essential part of the program, as it will allow the districts to continue this work after the grants expire, she said.
Dobrin said the team at Koinonia hopes its program will flip the dynamics for developmentally disabled students.
“Currently, 90% of them end up working in a workshop/facility-based program. Our goal is to help them see a different life for themselves, to imagine a path that is closer to what their peers would be envisioning, and instead see 90% chose more traditional community-based jobs or higher education,” she said.
While students with developmental disabilities are legally allowed to remain in school until their 22nd birthday, these programs may help more of them graduate earlier, allowing them to move on to the next phase of life at the same time as their peers and saving school districts a lot of money, she said. Part of making that happen includes working with parents to help them envision a more independent life for their child than they might have come to expect, she said.
“Let’s dream with your son or daughter,” Dobrin said.
In addition to the money from the county, Koinonia also received a $30,000 grant from the state to bring in a national expert for three days in June to help with strategic planning around the program, said Stacy Collins, who is the employment first lead with the Ohio Department of Developmental Disabilities. That money came through a Building Innovative Service Model grant that is funded through the Employment First Initiative, which states that employment should be the preferred option for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, she said.
“The work Koinonia is doing falls right in line with this in making sure that we are preparing youth with disabilities to make informed choices about the multiple pathways to employment as they come to graduation,” Collins said.
In addition to teaching students how to perform specific tasks, these programs also teach softer skills, such as being on time or knowing how to respond when an employer asks you to do something, said Heather Doyle, Copley-Fairlawn City School’s pupil services director.
Copley-Fairlawn has about 20 students currently enrolled in its partnership with UDS, and helping them identify their own unique strengths and weaknesses is a key part of it, she said. For example, some enjoy jobs that involve social interaction, while others would rather work alone or with a computer.
“This partnership is allowing us to have a clearer path for some of our students and more activities available to them so that they are getting these skills much earlier than in the past and making sure we have the appropriate experiences in place,” Doyle said.
It also is allowing the schools to start talking to students about what it means to have a job while they are still in middle school, which lays important groundwork for the future, she added.
In Woodridge schools, about a dozen students are enrolled in the program. Pupil services director Valerie Riedthaler said that with their assessments mostly completed in the spring, she is looking forward to matching the students up with workplaces where they can start putting in some hours this fall. She expects these will include nursing homes, bowling alleys and restaurants, and welcomes inquiries from any businesses that think they can incorporate these students into their workforce.
“Our goal is to place them into employment opportunities in their own community seamlessly after finishing school,” she said.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email