MCSEC is state lead in promoting customized rural employment
When David Sheppard became Marion County Special Education executive director several years ago, he was impressed with the services provided for infants through preschool children.
“We’ve done a good job at the early age,” he said, “but what have we done for the 18-to-21-year-olds?”
Heather Vinduska of Marion has been advocating for a local program to help older special ed students transition into the working world.
She has two children, ages 16 and 19, who have learning disabilities. In lieu of a high school diploma, the 19-year-old received a senior certificate from MCSEC and walked across the stage with the graduates in his class. He can continue as a student until age 21.
Vinduska was delighted to learn about a $19,000 grant MCSEC received in March from United Health Care to launch a customized employment program. It provides $4,000 in helping juniors and seniors in special ed to find jobs that allow them to stay in their home communities.
“The purpose is to work with specifically targeted students who qualify and begin immediately working with them to gain employment,” Sheppard said.
Vinduska’s son is one of eight who have been identified to receive help in the program.
“It’s a shot in the arm for the idea,” she said. “It’s something we have needed for a long time. I heard about the grant in February and wrote a letter in support of it. My concern was what is going to happen to our kids after graduation. My son is living at home. He wants to belong and be a part of the community.”
Special ed personnel are being trained to evaluate the eight students’ strengths, needs, and interests.
The next step will be to match them with employers and provide job training, if necessary.
Sheppard said he is discovering that numerous employers are open to hiring students with disabilities.
“I didn’t know how much potential there is in that market,” he said.
In an attempt to prepare them for post-secondary life, MCSEC begins to focus on long-term needs of special ed students when they reach age 16.
Until now, MCSEC has had to seek employment opportunities outside the county.
More than three years ago, Vinduska and another mother organized a group called Parent Advocates for Individuals with Disabilities to promote local employment of special ed students as they transition out of a structured school setting.
But after two public forums with input from outside experts, the initiative was put on hold when unforeseen family situations took priority.
Norm Winter, transition coordinator at MCSEC, and Steve Reiner, a special ed teacher at Peabody-Burns High School, got the ball rolling after they attended a meeting in February at the University of Kansas. They heard about the grant and applied for it.
MCSEC is the first of three grant recipients and, as such, is the lead agency in implementing the Kansas Rural Routes Employment Initiative.
Consulting firm Griffin-Hammis Associates and the KU Center on Developmental Disabilities are providing 40 hours of training that will lead to national certification in community employment services. The grant will provide on-site technical assistance through November.
More than 30 people attended the first two-day training session April 23-24 at Tabor College. The meeting attracted people from outside the county as well as local economic development directors, school superintendents, special education teachers, and several parents.
“I was surprised at how many attended,” Sheppard said. “Some came to support the new initiative, and some came to get certification.”
The next training session will focus on how to work with employers in hiring special ed students. It is set for next Tuesday and Wednesday at Tabor College. Sheppard hopes that all who participated in the first session will return. Participants have to complete all 40 hours of training to be certified to work with 18-to-21-year-olds.
The certification will allow special ed personnel to continue to connect qualifying students with local employers.