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With help of VCU program, high school students with disabilities gain valuable workplace experience at Richmond hotel

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Marvin Battle, a senior at George Wythe High School, works in housekeeping and laundry at the Crowne Plaza Hotel as part of Start on Success, a program coordinated by VCU that provides job skills training and paid internships to young people with disabilities.
Photos by Brian McNeill, University Public Affairs

Each day after classes at George Wythe High School, Marvin Battle, 18, goes to work in the housekeeping and laundry department of Richmond’s Crowne Plaza Hotel.

“I really enjoy it,” Battle said, as he tossed dirty towels into an industrial washing machine. “I fold laundry, fold towels, take out the trash, fold sheets, pillow cases, and just help around as needed if anything needs to be done. It’s good work experience that will help me in the long run and help me have a nice career in the hospitality business.”

Battle is one of eight Richmond Public Schools students with disabilities who are taking part in a new program called Start on Success that is coordinated by the Rehabilitation Research and Training Center’s Center on Transition Innovations, part of the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Education. The program teaches job skills to high school students with disabilities who are pursuing a standard high school diploma and then places them into paid internships with local businesses.

Research shows that work experience prior to exiting high school is a key predictor of whether young people with disabilities will go on to successfully land a job, enroll in college and live independently, said Elizabeth Getzel, director of the Center on Transition Innovations.

“The research shows that [work experience] helps with developing soft skills — problem solving, time management, even just having an opportunity to receive pay,” Getzel said. “Work experience, especially paid work experience, is so critical to giving them experience with things like budgeting, but it also gives them an opportunity to explore different ideas about career areas that they might like to focus on.”

Start on Success — a partnership between VCU, the Virginia Department of Education, the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services and local school systems — was first launched in Norfolk Public Schools in 2014. This school year, it was expanded to include school systems in Richmond and Danville. So far, 29 students have completed the program, while 14 have just finished or are wrapping up this month. Next year, it will launch in Essex County Public Schools.

“This experience has a really profound impact in a lot of ways on the students and their lives,” Getzel said. “We’re definitely seeing students who are moving on to post-secondary education and employment.”

As part of the program, students participate in a work readiness class in the fall and are placed in internships in the spring semester.

In Norfolk, the participants worked at Old Dominion University in the departments of human resources, student services and maintenance, as well as at Nauticus, a maritime-themed science center and museum. In Danville, students worked at local retail store Leggett Town and Country, where they worked on the floor, worked in HR, and did data entry and inventory.

The Richmond Public Schools students have been working at the Crowne Plaza Richmond Downtown Hotel in a variety of jobs. While Battle has been working in housekeeping and laundry, a fellow George Wythe High School senior Jaquasha Braxton has been working primarily in human resources.

Through Start on Success, Jaquasha Braxton, a senior at George Wythe High School, works in the Crowne Plaza Hotel's human resources department, as well as several other offices.
Through Start on Success, Jaquasha Braxton, a senior at George Wythe High School, works in the Crowne Plaza Hotel's human resources department, as well as several other offices.

“I do filing, clock in people who didn’t clock in, [process] PTO time, do interviews,” she said. “I wanted to take part in the program because it would be a different learning experience for me. I wanted to learn more about the work environment.”

The program’s work readiness class she took in the fall also gave her a lot of valuable information, including what to put on a job application, how to give two weeks’ notice before leaving a job and other parts of work and office norms.

“There’s a lot to learn about the workplace — things you think you know, but that you don’t really know until you’re working there yourself,” she said. “There’s been a lot to learn, but I’ve learned a lot and I’ve been getting really good experience here.”

I’ve learned a lot and I’ve been getting really good experience here.

A key part of Start on Success is that students are supported by both mentors in the workplace and on-site educators from the local school systems.

Marianne Moore, a secondary transition specialist in the Office of Special Education Program Improvement in the Virginia Department of Education, called Start on Success a great example of how schools, businesses and state agencies can work together to support students.

“Partnerships that include schools and businesses and are supported by state agencies have been very successful in Virginia,” she said. “The Virginia Department of Education is very proud to be part of this fantastic collaboration.”

Kathy Hayfield, director of the Division of Rehabilitative Services in the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services, also praised Start on Success.

“Real work experience as a high school student is the absolute best preparation for successful employment as an adult,” she said. “The Division of Rehabilitative Services' support of students in the SOS program is a new initiative and proving to be a good one.”

Kelly Ligon, a research and demonstration associate with the Center on Transition Innovations, said Start on Success offers support that allows students to learn and grow to become better employees.

“The students are receiving feedback on a daily and weekly basis, and every two weeks they reflect on the work that they’re doing, how to do things better, and how to improve those soft skills,” she said. “It’s different than just having a job on your own at KFC or Kohl’s or somewhere that you don’t get that level of feedback and support.”

Beyond the workplace experience, Start on Success is also helping participants gain independence and life experience. One student in Norfolk, for example, learned how to use the city’s public transportation system so he could get to his internship, but now knows how to use it to get anywhere in the city.

“He now feels comfortable to go anywhere by himself,” Getzel said. “There’s multiple ways that this experience builds out into the community, and it has a really profound impact in a lot of ways on the students and their lives.”

As for Battle, he has two jobs lined up after graduation — one with the hotel and another with a local landscaping company. Start on Success, he said, helped prepare him for his coming employment.

“I wanted to get some work experience so I can better myself for when I graduate high school. It’s been helping me a lot. I’ve gained a lot of confidence,” he said. “The experience has been good. I’ve had people helping. I caught on quick, but they’ve helped me stay on task. It will be good experience for my future job.”

 

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