- Associated Press - Friday, April 7, 2017

PEORIA, Ill. (AP) - Sallea Marble sounded almost nonchalant when she explained why she hires Peoria Public Schools students to work at Buehler Home, where she is dietary manager.

“We all had to start somewhere.”

That could be the slogan for the Secondary Transitional Experience Program, or STEP, a partnership between PPS and Illinois Department of Human Services Division of Rehabilitation Services.

The program, which operates at each high school and Jamieson School, specializes in helping high school students with a wide range of disabilities find jobs and supporting the employers who hire them.

Marble and Buehler Home were one of four organizations honored as employers of the year for their involvement in the program during the program’s annual Workplace Skills Expo. Peoria High School senior Marcellous Thurmond, a Buehler employee, was one of 16 students recognized for holding the same job more than a year.

“All the employees like him. He’s so nice, so polite,” Marble said of Thurmond, whose duties include washing dishes and serving food.

Rhonda Smith, the STEP work coordinator at Peoria High, has similar praise for Marble.

“She’s really good with our students, she’s really patient,” Smith said.

If everyone has to start somewhere, STEP is designed to meet students where they are, said Leigh Bowen, one of two transition specialists at the school district.

Students’ disabilities can include learning, emotional, hearing, vision or physical impairments. Some have minor disabilities, Bowen said, while others have severe disabilities.

Smith and other work coordinators teach soft skills, such as the basics of applying for a job or what to wear and how to act during a job interview to students who aren’t ready for the workforce. Those students may be placed at training sites, where they earn money and work experience before seeking employer-paid jobs. Landmark Recreation Center is a training site, Bowen said. Students also train as custodial helpers at various schools.

For students who need less coaching, work coordinators help with writing resumes and the actual search for a part-time job. The coordinators also recruit employers to the program, conduct follow-up job evaluations and other services for employers who hire students.

The program is not limited to job searches and employment. Work coordinators also help students with disabilities prepare for college.

The district operates the program through a contract with the Division of Rehabilitation Services. The state reimburses the district’s costs for successfully employed students who work at least 60 days or 240 hours a year. PPS uses that money to pay students in the training program and to provide bus passes, uniforms or other work needs for students who find jobs.

Finding employment can be difficult for a student with a lot of special needs, Bowen said. “But with the right support, students with disabilities can be the best employees.”

Other employers honored at the Workplace Skills Expo were J.C. Penney, nominated by Richwoods High School; Manual Academy cafeteria staff, nominated by Manual; and Panera Bread, nominated by Jamieson and Peoria Adult Transition Academy.

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Source: (Peoria) Journal Star, https://bit.ly/2nit4GG

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Information from: Journal Star, https://pjstar.com


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