Kent State employs local high school students with disabilities

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Matt Altieri, a teacher at Ravenna High School, shows Marlene Maneage, the manager at Prentice Café, a career project he’s looking over on September 20, 2016. Matt brings his students with special needs up to Kent State on weekday mornings for them to work in the café, gaining good work experience. “Marlene is realistic with the kids,” said Matt. “She doesn’t baby them, too many people try to baby them.”

Rachel Stevenson

Kent State Dining Services partnered with Ravenna High School to employ special education students and provide work experience to guide them toward future employment opportunities.

“It’s an awesome opportunity for them,” Matt Altieri, an intervention specialist at Ravenna High School, said. “They get paid just like any other student worker here would get paid, and it’s just an awesome opportunity to learn job skills.”

He said partnering with the university has provided his students working for Dining Services a newfound confidence as workers.

“This opportunity gives them something they can claim as their own,” Altieri said. “They’re on the team here so they are collaborating with other employees, whether they be adults or other college students … their confidence just grows so much because they feel like they are independent.”

Beth Coleman, principal of Ravenna High School, said the school has an “in-house transition program” to integrate students into the local community through employment opportunities.

“They go out once a week to Goodwill and the community clothing center. Then they move to a different class, where they go out to Kent State,” she said. “We try to give them skills that when they leave us they’ll be able to do something as a citizen.”

Altieri said one of the greatest opportunities for his students offered through this partnership is the chance to work with management in Dining Services such as Marlene Maneage, senior manager of Prentice Cafe.

“It’s not easy for my students to come into a work environment because they don’t have work experience. They’ve been in special (education) classrooms that are very confined their whole high school career,” Altieri said. “Marlene gives them this opportunity to make mistakes and learn.”

Maneage said hiring and working with students from Ravenna High School “brings a lot of joy” into her work at Prentice Cafe, and she follows the motto “treat people well and teach what you can” when working with all of her employees.

“When you have some sort of impact on somebody’s life that they remember five years down the road, there’s nothing better,” Maneage said. “I believe strongly for me, it’s my responsibility to make sure that these students are as prepared as I could possibly help them be. I take a lot of pride in hiring those students and working with those students to succeed.”

Altieri said two of his students currently work with Maneage at Prentice Cafe while four others work in the Kent Markets in the Student Center.

He said Babette Cameron, project co-director for the Center for Innovation in Transition and Employment at the university, inspired Ravenna’s partnership with Kent State through the Kent State Transition Collaborative, which provides employment opportunities in departments across campus for high school students with disabilities.

Cameron said the program started in 1985 when Robert Flexer, professor of special education and rehabilitation in the department of educational foundations and special services, founded the program with the mission of “supporting the efforts of people with disabilities to realize quality lives.”

Students work in a variety of departments across campus including Dining Services, Residence Services and University Libraries.

Through the program, special education majors at Kent State have the opportunity to train and work with students with disabilities from the community and emphasize learning through “fading away” and natural consequences, Cameron said.

“Our employers on campus have been wonderful … working with our students and treating them as equal,” Cameron said. “They are so busy as it is that for them to allow us to come in and work in their workplaces, it’s amazing to me. It seems like the busiest people are the ones that are willing to give us time and opportunities.”

She said teachers are responsible to help students learn and succeed in these roles.

“It’s nice for us to get credit for what a wonderful program we have, but the students actually work hard at learning what they learn,” Cameron said. “We can give them all the opportunities in the world, but if they don’t take them and make something of it then they don’t succeed. And I think a lot of time I get credit — our program gets credit — for the students’ successes.”

She said responsibility lies on the teachers of these students to help them learn and succeed in these roles.

Abdullah Adams, a student employed through KSTC with the School of Teaching, Learning and Curriculum Studies, said he hopes to learn important job skills through this opportunity.

“I’m learning still. I’m getting the hang of it,” he said. “It’s good to learn something new everyday because you… get to see what you’re good it.”

Altieri said Ravenna High School works independently from KSTC, but the programs have similar goals.

“Basically, the entire program is centered around making sure they have transition skills,” Coleman said.

Altieri said the ultimate goal is to help students find employment after they graduate, and transition programs like these give students opportunities to foster confidence while gaining unique life skills.

According to a study conducted by the National Center for Special Education Research (NCSER), 71 percent of high school graduates with disabilities report having a paid job, and 85 percent reported engaging in the community through employment, post-secondary education or job training within a six-year period after graduating high school.

“Marlene gives them an opportunity to learn needed job experience so that once they graduate this year they can go out and get a job in the future,” Altieri said. “This opportunity, like I said, is not just a confidence builder that they’ll carry over in the future. It’s something they can put on a resume.”

Maneage said the opportunity to work with these students is a unique and humbling experience offered at Kent State.

“There’s a lot of satisfaction in that for me, and everyone has a story,” she said. “It’s very cool relationships that you just can’t get anywhere and you can here. That’s one of the things I love about Kent.”

Contact Rachel Stevenson at [email protected]