Jeff Clemetson | Editor
Getting a job is tough work — especially if you have special needs. But a unique work program at two San Carlos special needs schools aims to give their students the experience to succeed in the workforce.
On April 18, the Springall Academy held its annual Career Fair and, for the first time, was joined by its sister school the Sierra Academy of San Diego. Springall’s fair goes hand in hand with its Workability Program, which is funded by a grant from the state.
“We have students through our grant that are 16 and older that work out in the community with a job coach,” said Springall director Janae Aguilera. “So making those connections really helps our students get placed out there and learn those job-related skills, and a lot of them do end up getting hired on after they graduate.”
During the Career Fair, students dress for success in interview clothes and are given mock interviews by school counselors before going into the fair and interacting with the businesses.
“The students get to go around and ask questions, they have their own clipboards,” Aguilera said. “They kind of have a scavenger hunt that they go on to learn how to ask questions about the careers, that back and forth conversation to gain more information.”
Some of the businesses that participated in this year’s fair included YMCA, Starbucks, Kona Ice Snow Cone, Snapology, Pet-tential and individual professionals, including paramedics, a computer technician, an animal trainer, and a chef.
For a few of the businesses, the Career Fair was part of an already ongoing partnership with the schools in hiring students as part of the Workability Program.
Edditha Maaba, the workability assistant and transition coordinator at Springall, said the schools have a certain amount of money to teach work experience transitional skills and job readiness skills to students. For the off-campus program, partner businesses train students for work and the school pays the students real money through the grant.
“So we have some students working at restaurants like On The Border. We have students working at Smart & Final, students that work at Marshalls and students that work at a company called Snapology that works with Legos,” she said. “So, they get real money that they can use in whatever way that they want.”
At the career fair, Snapology franchise owner Julie Bouchard talked to students about being an entrepreneur and how buying a franchise works. Snapology is a Lego-based company that builds kits for educational settings and birthday parties. Springall and Sierra students help put all the pieces back into their proper containers.
“As you can imagine, our kits get very messed up and very disorganized because when the kids are using them the pieces kind of get all over,” Bouchard said, adding that she currently employs around 10 students from each school. “They help us out so much. We get so much done when they’re there and the kids are just wonderful.”
Another business at the fair that also hires students from the Workability Program is Pet-tential, which makes natural dog treats. The business grew from a nonprofit program called AEFCT (Autism Experts Empowering Families & Children Together), said AEFCT Adult Program Coordinator Jennifer Burns.
The Pet-tential program began in November of last year and currently employs four students, who bake the company’s wheat- and gluten-free coconut and peanut butter treats using the San Carlos Rec Center kitchen and then sort and package them at the school.
“It’s a great cause. The whole idea of the dog treats is amazing, but it’s really giving these teens and adults job skills — that’s what it’s about,” Burs said, adding that the students are excellent employees and often compliment her and each other all during the work day. “It’s just such a positive work environment.”
Although it does not happen all the time, there are students who end up staying with companies past their time in the program.
“We have some of those employers that some of our students will work at, and then continue that work after they graduate as well,” said school counselor Elana Lesse. “It’s a great opportunity for them to put on a resume to help them get a job after school.”
Lesse also pointed out that some students have jobs unrelated to school programs, including at places like fast food restaurants and even Costco.
“It’s challenging to get jobs there but they’re familiar working with our students,” she said.
— Reach Jeff Clemetson at firstname.lastname@example.org.