Lynette Vest leads the Community Based Instruction (CBI) program with six students at Floyd County High School. CBI offers opportunities for students with specific learning or intellectual disabilities to receive job training and real-world experience with work through partnerships with local businesses. However, this year, Floyd County’s CBI program is being supplemented with a STEP (Secondary Transition to Employment Program) curriculum, which expands the skills CBI students are learning and sponsors job coaches to visit their classroom for three hours each day.
“Usually I do the CBI program,” Vest explained. “This is that, but it’s also all the other things about getting and holding a job. We call it ‘soft skills,’” Vest elaborated. The STEP program, which is the result of a collaboration with the Virginia Department of Aging and Rehabilative Services, funds job coaches to help students in the special education program explore pathways to potential future jobs, discuss their personal values, and learn the aspects of being a good employee, such as hygiene and time management.
“This could be a class for anyone to be able to take,” Vest said. Instruction such as this focuses on work-based learning in an effort to prepare students with disabilities for productive, independent life after graduation, if that is their aspiration. Implementation of the STEP curriculum in Floyd follows the example of schools in Salem, Bristol, Prince George, Danville, Henrico, and other Virginia schools, Vest said. But Vest said students with disabilities in Floyd and the New River Valley are “guinea pigs” in the sense that Floyd is one of the more rural areas where STEP has been implemented, and there are fewer job opportunities for this population of students here. “We’re limited as to what anybody can do for a job,” Vest said. “Having no public transit is a huge barrier,” she added.
Through the CBI program, Vest’s students have worked at local businesses including Citizens Telephone Cooperative, Angels in the Attic, Hotel Floyd, Thompson & Griffin, and others, as well as running their own coffee shop during the first class period of the day. Teachers with first block classes, Vest explained, have order forms that they can turn in to the students in person, or by calling or emailing. The students practice “lots of different communication skills,” as well as taking money, making change, filling orders, preparing coffee, hot chocolate, and tea, and delivering the orders to the proper classrooms.
The students spoke highly of the coffee shop, as well as their other CBI and STEP experiences. The most important part of delivery at the coffee shop, student Isaac Byrd said, is “to give people their drink,” and he said he finds the work “very hard.” Fellow student Tasha Cummins added, “We don’t want to leave that coffee shop, we want to work, but we have other classes.”
Byrd said his favorite part of the STEP curriculum so far was when he had the opportunity to roleplay with job counselors about how to act at work. He also discussed job exploration that he had done with Vest and his classmates, and said he learned that, “I’d be able to make $200,000 as a housekeeper in California. A butler!” However, more realistically, Byrd imagined he might work at a newspaper in the future. “You can write about stuff. I’d like to write about everything,” he said.
During the job exploration phase of the STEP curriculum, Vest said, “They’re thinking of jobs they’re interested in, searching for them on Chromebooks, and looking at requirements for a particular job.” She continued, “There’s a lot of conversations about ‘What would that job look like for you?’ And lots of soul searching.”
Student Seth Hutchins said he learned that he could go to New River Community College and potentially do office administration work in the future. Cummins said she enjoyed folding clothes at Angels in the Attic and Hotel Floyd, but her favorite CBI placement was at Thompson & Griffin, where she helped shred documents. “We love to shred, because it’s a stress reliever,” Cummins said. “I want to get a shredder for Christmas, and a big pack of paper.”
The students also reflected on what they’d learned in the “soft skills” component of the course. Cummins enthusiastically offered insight on forming good habits: “Bad habits are hard to break, and it’s not going to take one day. It’s going to take a lot of days.” Regarding time management, she pointed out that, “Time is what matters, because you don’t spend a lot of time with other people except your family.” Cummins said it was important to make that short social time as meaningful as possible.
Hutchins said the hygiene lessons stuck out to him. The students discussed the importance of showing up to work with clean hands and nails, and showering every day.
Byrd described personal values as “money and everything you like.” According to Vest, two of the six students already hold jobs—one at Hardee’s and the other at Mickey G’s Italian Restaurant. “They understand the concept of money and like to make money,” she said, while some of the other students desire involvement and fulfillment more than wages. “Money’s not really an issue (for them), they’re more of—I just want to be involved in something,” Vest said. “Just the feeling that you’re needed, and part of something, is important for everybody.”
Vest said overall, she’s been pleasantly surprised by how much of the STEP curriculum her students have been able to comprehend and how eager they have been to engage with the lessons. “I was thinking it was going to be so over their heads, but the job coaches have done really well with explaining. … It’s a lot of discussion time … and the kids are really good about asking questions,” Vest said. She continued, “It’s opened my thinking of what they’re capable of and what they know—with a little explanation, they can really understand.”
She said during the class discussion of personal values, the students raised issues including religion, money, respect, and honesty. “They’re all different,” Vest said. “Hopefully they’re doing a little soul-searching.”