By Erika Karp
Tyler Butler, a 16-year-old special needs student at Centereach High School, has a plan. He wants to go to Suffolk County Community College, get married and have a family, but he knows he needs a job first. Butler has taken a step in the right direction though, thanks to the life skills’ work-study program at Centereach High School.
On a Thursday morning, hours before Buffalo Wild Wings Grill & Bar in Centereach is crowded with customers, Butler, along with three of his peers, is diligently getting the restaurant ready for business. Butler is laying down mats, while Maria Rivas, 18, washes windows; Anthony Miglino, 20, sets up chairs; and Jacob Robinson, 16, fills Wetnap caddies.
While the students’ disabilities vary, all of them are learning skills to help them become more independent as they enter adulthood.
“They need to experience real-life situations [and] real-life jobs,” said Debbie O’Neill, a 26-year special education teacher in the Middle Country Central School District.
O’Neill, along with Peggy Dominguez, who has been teaching in the district for 27 years, advocated for and initiated the work-study program three years ago.
In the beginning, O’Neill and Dominguez were surprised by how many businesses didn’t want help and that some people felt the students were being taken advantage of. Today, students rotate between different local businesses five days a week visiting places like Old Navy, The Home Depot, Holiday Inn Express and St. Charles Hospital.
Dominguez said that many of the skills people take for granted are ones their students don’t have, but by immersing them in a real job situation, they’re able to work on social skills and become more independent. The program has also grown tremendously this year to more than 50 students, as many who in the past sat for the Regents competency tests have transitioned into the life skills program.
Centereach High School Principal Tom Bell said in a phone interview that the program is beneficial for all students, as the life skills students are more immersed in everyday school life. “They feel more part of the school,” he said.
In addition to the off-campus work-study, younger students, along with those who aren’t ready to work off campus, are working on campus. This year, the students are helping district staff with clerical and custodial tasks, in addition to running a campus store and a café. Students who run the café bake items, take orders, deliver goods and keep inventory.
According to special seducation teacher Darla Randazzo who runs the café, the work-study program has helped build the students’ confidence. Randazzo said that by the time a student leaves school, they will have a resume or portfolio that showcases all of their skills.
“When they leave school, they’ll have more skills to bring to the job,” she said.
Superintendent Roberta Gerold said the program is still growing as more students are now opting to participate in work-study instead of attending BOCES programs.
Gerold said it is a wonderful thing that the students are learning to be as independent as possible.
Rivas, who has been participating in the off-campus work-study program for three years and has attended BOCES in the past, said she enjoys the program because she can learn about everything. While she has a part-time job on the weekends, she is hoping she could get another one at Buffalo Wild Wings.
So far, two students have been offered jobs, and while this seems like a small number, Dominguez said it is a major accomplishment. Often times, the small achievements are the best kind.
A few days ago, while working at The Home Depot, Butler correctly directed a customer to the outdoor lighting fixtures. As the students were walking back to the bus, they saw the customer leaving the store with what he was looking for.
“Sometimes the successes are small,” Dominguez said. “But it makes such a difference.”