Howard work-study program prepares students for next step

At 19, Craig Knill has a varied work experience. Over the past four years, he has worked for libraries, at bookstores as a custodian and as a clerical worker in the offices of the Howard County Council.

It's all part of a work-study transition program through the Howard County Public School System and numerous community partners that helps prepare students such as Knill, a senior at Glenelg High School, for life after school.

The work-study transition program is for students with disabilities, from the mild to the profound, whether they're bound for a diploma or a certificate of completion, said Dawson Robertson, program head for work study and lead transition coordinator for the Howard County Public School System.

"This is providing students with disabilities the opportunity to transition to adult life, about lifting barriers," he said.

The certificate-bound students "have more barriers to employment," and can stay in school until they're 21, Robertson said. Knill is diploma-bound, and in May he'll walk across the stage at Merriweather Post Pavilion as part of Glenelg's graduation.

There are about 130 students across the county in the work-study program, Robertson said, and while their needs vary, all are in the program because their individual education plan recommends work study. Of those, Knill is the first to be placed at the council offices, where he works two days a week putting together pamphlets.

For students who are at Cedar Lane, the public school in Fulton that serves students with more severe disabilities, the work-study program is one-on-one, and a school system employee is with the student at work.

For students such as Knill, who is described by his mother as being on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum, the work-study program is a chance to hone social skills needed for life after school.

Cynthia Gibson serves as a kind of job coach, helping Knill with his resume or interviewing skills, for example. "My duty is, to make sure he's reaching his goals," said Gibson, transition coordinator at Glenelg and Marriotts Ridge high schools.

At the beginning of Knill's placement, Gibson is on hand more often as he settles into a new job. And then she "fades away," checking in for a few minutes once a week to make sure everything's OK.

Gibson has been working with Knill for about four years, and said he's done well in the program. Knill's mother agreed, and said her son has become more confident.

"Having these work study experiences gives him, or any kids, the insight of 'oh, I can do that,' " she said. "It might not be something he exudes, but it's something he knows of himself."

One of the most important social skills students need after high school is self-advocacy, Gibson said, something she said Knill has mastered.

"The world of work isn't as cushioned as the world of school," she said. "In the world, it's expected for a student to know how to self-advocate, to ask for what they want."

"Self-advocating" means knowing when the work day begins and ends, knowing how to network, and knowing how to ask for more work once a task is completed, Gibson said. It also means speaking up for yourself.

"At the end of his custodial placement, Craig told me that wasn't interesting to him as a lifelong pursuit," she said. "He asked, 'can I do something else?' That's self-advocating. A different student would have just stayed in the position until it was over and never had said anything."

As he looks to his future, Knill is considering working part-time and attending college part-time. He said he'd like to possible study cartography, because he's interested in maps ("They're fun to look at," he said).

He thinks he could possibly make a career out of clerical work, though he's liked most of the jobs he's had since starting the program. He said he would recommend the work-study program to any student.

"You get good job experience," he said.

Robertson said the job-sampling aspect of the program means the students get a wide taste of numerous careers, but they have to develop and practice their self-advocacy skills if they want to transfer those skills to meaningful, paid employment.

"This program starts as 'how can we get them to work,' to 'how can we build more compassion in the community,' " Robertson said. "It's about lifting those barriers."

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