The Lafayette Parish School System is pushing college and career-readiness for students on all paths, including students in the special education department, who are increasingly exposed to the larger Lafayette community through the district’s community skills program. 

The community skills program has existed for over 20 years, evolving in the last decade with the addition of recreation opportunities and expanded work options. Currently, 150 high school students and 115 middle school students participate in at least one of the community skills programs, special education department program supervisor Miriam Hollier said.

Students participate in a variety of community outings, including recreation and leisure trips led by adapted physical education teachers, community based excursions and volunteer work, and community vocational training outings, Hollier said.

High school students in the vocational program work at local businesses between one and three or more times per week to develop social, communication and work-based skills. They work at businesses including Home Depot, Rouses Markets, Marshalls and Our Lady of Lourdes Regional Medical Center, she said.

“The goal for the program is to make all of the students as independent as possible and to help them become productive members of society,” Hollier said.

The program partnerships begin by meeting with the business’ management. If they’re interested, the school system and business sign an interagency agreement to allow the students to work at the property. They draw up a schedule and list of tasks the students can be responsible for, community skills supervisor Gigi Molony said.

Each workday the students are bused to the work site, where they’re overseen by a special-education teacher and teaching assistants, she said. For nonwork outings, the teachers submit a monthly calendar to the special education department detailing where they plan to take the students and the specific lesson plan it correlates to, Hollier said.

The goal is to align classroom instruction with community life and practical skills as much as possible, she said. That wouldn’t be possible without the support of the Lafayette community, they said.

“I think Lafayette as a community is so supportive when we send our students out to access the community,” Molony said.

Loretta Angelle, human resources manager at the Home Depot on Ambassador Caffery Parkway, said having the special education students work at her store has been just as transformational for her employees as the students over the last three years. She said many of her employees had never interacted with individuals with disabilities before.

The experience has helped foster acceptance and greater respect, she said.

“In this environment it’s completely different because you’re not just catering to them, you’re not taking care of them. They’re showing you that they can do all this stuff,” Angelle said.

The manager, who has a special-needs child, said she’s proud to participate in the program and offer students work experience. Performing a job well contributes to the students’ sense of self-worth and it’s also uplifting for their families, many of whom may have never expected to see their children work, she said.

While the tasks may seem small, it’s a career path for them, Angelle said.

Jennifer Allain, Carencro High School special education teacher, leads a group of about seven students at Angelle’s store on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Allain said it’s exciting to see the students’ progress and the additional work they’re able to handle as they master tasks.

At the Home Depot, the students handle everything from scanning and re-shelving returned items using the Home Depot app to dusting appliances and other floor stock. They also water plants in the gardening center and rotate the spotlighted plants on the sales floor, among other tasks, she said.

The educators try to change tasks regularly and alternate which peers the students work with and under which teacher’s guidance to help the students adjust to changing circumstances. It’s important they’re able to remain calm in the face of change, Allain said.

“That’s real life. Nothing is constant. With them routine is best, but there are times where they have to adapt just like the rest of society does. It’s important for them to learn that skill,” Allain said.

Despite the focus on the educational benefits, the vocational training isn’t all work and no play. The students take considerable pride and joy from their duties, she said.

Students Brandon Thibodeaux, a senior at Lafayette High School, and Layne Carrier, a student at Carencro High School, said working makes them feel “happy” and “awesome” and they like being able to take responsibility for executing tasks. They said they enjoy working and talking with the other staff members at Home Depot.

Trania Thomas, 17, works at Deano’s Pizza on Bertrand Drive each week. She and her peers fold pizza boxes in varying sizes, wipe down the tables and doors, sweep the floors, prep the tables for customers and set out the cheese shakers on tables.

The Acadiana High School junior said the experience has given her more confidence and has helped her feel better prepared for graduation in two years. At Rouses Markets, where she also works, Thomas said a manager complimented her work ethic and said she’s the kind of person they would hire.

“It makes me feel proud of myself that I can really do it,” Thomas said.

Email Katie Gagliano at kgagliano@theadvocate.com