Like students everywhere, the more than 50 Carroll County high school students in Penn-Mar Westminster’s Youth Transition program are eagerly looking forward to the holiday break. However, given their enthusiasm for the work they have been doing in their virtual classes this semester, it is likely that they will be counting the days to get back to their computers to continue preparing for life and careers after high school.
Transitioning from youth to adulthood is a crucial time for every young person, particularly for students and youth with disabilities. It is a time young people gain the knowledge and skills they will need to enhance their self-sufficiency and chances for career success. Led by a team of dedicated staff, Penn-Mar Westminster’s Youth Transition Post-Secondary program is engaging students in innovative ways that are helping lay the foundation for their employment success and independence in the community.
VOICE for Change and Empowerment
What began as a pilot program with Carroll County Public Schools (CCPS) three years ago, has evolved into a full-on collaboration that today includes the Maryland Department of Rehabilitation Services (DORS). The initial program, VOICE (Vocational Opportunities for Independent Change and Empowerment) commenced with one class of students from the Carroll County Special Education Post-Secondary program.
As Holly Augustine, Penn-Mar Westminster’s Employment Manager, described it, VOICE was a program based on developing pre-employment skills that students could apply in the workforce. Its focus was on manual skills, functional academics, communication, social, and daily living skills, as well as volunteer work-based experiences.
“There was not a lot of focus on career exploration or diving into their interests and skills and exploring the careers they would like to enter afterwards,” said Holly. “So, we adapted the focus and adopted a customized employment curriculum model around helping young people explore their interests, skills and conditions for success and where their best match is in the work world post education.”
Exploration and Discovery
The new Youth Transition pilot program with its focus on career exploration was so successful in its first year that it went from being taught in one Carroll County Post-Secondary class to all of the public schools’ five classes. That expansion happened when DORS came on board to help fund the pilot in collaboration with CCPS.
“DORS really liked what we were doing and wanted to partner with us to fund the program through their Post-Employment Services in order to offer the class to more people,” said Jennifer Tillman, who at the time was Penn-Mar Westminster’s Youth Coordinator and Youth Transition team member.
With the five classes in full swing, the Youth Transition team invited more than 40 Carroll County community employers to present to the classes over the course of the school year. The diversity of businesses and career themes represented included self-employment, the hospitality industry, law enforcement and security, and fields in the arts, among others. “It was a great networking opportunity for the students,” said Holly.
The team then guided the students around creating a robust electronic employment portfolio that they could take with them after they graduated, something to use to map their course for employment.
“One of the things that makes our program unique is its innovation and holistic approach,” said Team member Stacy Latchaw, Penn-Mar Westminster’s Quality Coordinator. “That approach considers the whole person in trying to connect them to exploring themselves and a good job match. We’re exposing the students to a host of opportunities and possibilities that can really manifest into something in their life. We’re not telling them that they’re career dreams are not valid, we’re exploring and discovering how they can make them a reality.”
When COVID hit late last winter, the team took the whole course of seven classes online, which Holly said opened up a lot of doors for them. Not to say it wasn’t stressful at first, but the process allowed them to expand what they could do, while continuing to provide the students with networking opportunities and to map their educational courses.
Each full-hour class is taught by Nicole Swartz, Penn-Mar Westminster’s Program Instructor. The initial concern was in keeping students engaged the entire hour. However, the interactive coursework built into the class, the team quickly learned, has students excited to fire up their computers and log in every day. “We’re trying to keep it creative and fun,” said Nicole.
“The ultimate goal is to keep everyone engaged,” Nicole said. “And because of our approach we can customize the individual classes and see what works to keeps them involved in the exploration process. We’re creating a place where they feel comfortable hashing through their interests and conditions for success and skills in a way that’s not telling them that they are limited.”
For the team, the experience and progress the students have made has been exceptionally rewarding.
“We’ve watched as their confidence has grown over the years,” said Jennifer. “They are asserting their right to be who they are and their right to a job that’s going to make them happy. Seeing that shift throughout the year is fantastic.”