Learning outside the classroom

Ryan Haidet

Autistic high school students travel to Newman Center for life skills lessons

Ellen Pochedley serves her students lunch after they have finished their scheduled tasks. She even uses lunch as a learning experience for them, introducing new foods to them such as pita bread and hummus.

Heather Stawicki | Daily Kent Stater

Credit: Ron Soltys

Cleaning, sweeping and organizing mix with laughter and smiles in the Newman Center on a weekly basis.

Each Monday, five students with autism from Theodore Roosevelt High School visit the center to learn life skills.

They are assigned specific jobs.

“Every morning they get a schedule,” said Ellen Pochedley, their teacher. “The schedule is basically a plan for their day because they’re visual learners, and this gives them the whole visual picture of what their day is going to look like.”

Each student is given a sheet that showcases different jobs he or she can do at the Newman Center.

“They all have one of these (job sheets) on their clipboards so we talk about their job choices,” Pochedley said. “So they have a choice of the fireside room, which is more like a livingroom setting, the church itself, the social hall and then the kitchen. And the fireside and the kitchen are nice because it’s kind of like a home setting.”

Depending on what jobs students have, different skill sets are required.

“And they actually have community-type jobs,” Pochedley said. “Teaching the organizational skills, teaching working together, having a finished product and taking pride in their work. Because it’s evident. They show that pride. They’re glad they’ve gotten that job done.”

She also said that, though some students have favorite jobs, they enjoy the work they do.

“They definitely have job preferences,” Pochedley said. “Sky (one of the students) really likes to work in the church and he volunteers to vacuum in there. We try to teach them new jobs, but then we also are able to assess what jobs they enjoy and they’re successful at versus the ones that are more challenging for them.”

Dressing appropriately for work is also emphasized.

“We talk about wearing khaki pants and a white shirt, white sweatshirt or a white sweater,” Pochedley said. “It’s not heavy-duty cleaning, but we’re also teaching that you might work somewhere where you have to wear a work uniform.”

There’s also a break when Pochedley and her assistants go to another table and let the students have time for a snack with their peers.

When the break and the day of work are over, students catch the PARTA bus back to the high school. Pochedley said the bus ride also teaches life skills: Students learn mobility skills when they put their tickets in the fare box and time telling when they must recognize what time the bus will arrive.

The program has existed for approximately eight years.

“I think it’s a really good program,” said special education major Nicole Davis, a student teacher for the class. “It’s the only program around that I know of that’s just an autism program. They work very well together — the professionals and the teachers —(and have) good communication with the students. So far they’ve welcomed me into their class.”

Elena Brown, administrative assistant at the Newman Center, said this location provides the program with something else that is important for the students.

“I think it’s important for them to have work in an atmosphere that’s safe and where they’re not being judged,” she said. “It’s fantastic. They do a terrific job.”

The Newman Center isn’t the only place these students go to help out. Twice a month they also work at Robinson Memorial Hospital, exercise at the Student Recreation and Wellness Center, go grocery shopping, bowl and go to the Kent Free Library.

“These things that we’re working on and teaching them to practice are things they’ll need in life,” Pochedley said. “It’s trying to teach independence and trying to get the students more independent in a different setting, in a work-related setting.”

Contact public affairs reporter Ryan Haidet at [email protected].