COLONIE — Since malls have been part of our culture, high school kids have loved going there to hang out.
But, South Colonie post-graduate students are now headed to Colonie Center every school day to continue learning life skills like getting to work on time, taking pride in a job well done and how to better socialize with customers and colleagues.
Placing special education students into real world situations is not anything new, but rather than split time between a traditional school setting, South Colonie is renting a spot in Colonie Center — called Colonie Community Connection — so the students literally walk out the door to the retail outlets where they work and learn.
“It has been a goal of ours for years to be able to provide our students the opportunity to gain valuable real life work experience in an actual real life work setting. To be able to achieve this under a single roof is remarkable,” said teacher Deirdre Locke. “Since we have started the school year we have seen consistent growth and improvement in our program. These strides have been made in many different areas including student growth, improved employer relations and overall increased awareness of our program.”
South Colonie Superintendent David Perry said the district has, for a number of years, placed students in job/learning opportunities but having it established in a mall the size of Colonie Center is ideal in that it provides a variety of businesses and is logistically easier than transporting students to different places all over town.
“Because of the partnership with a mall this size we are able to give them opportunities in a variety of businesses so it’s not just in one particular area in retail,” he said. “If they are interested in the service industry there are plenty of opportunities in that or culinary arts, so it really gives them a number of options.”
While the program is right now only for those in the transition program, students who have completed four years of high school but who are still under school district responsibility until they turn 21, Perry said ideally he would like to see it expand to other students within the special education population and to the “entire population of high school students with internship opportunities that will take them beyond the classroom walls.”
“Several of our students have already gotten paychecks so they are excited about that, and it really goes to the value of the program, when you see the growth in each of these children and the confidence it brings them,” he said.
Dante works at the domestics section of Boscov’s department store and learned and is happy to have the opportunity to work.
“I always go to work on time, and I do everything they ask and I learned that because of this program,” he said. “In this world nothing comes for free, so if you learn at a young age to get a job then everything else will come.”
Maria, who also works at Boscov’s and volunteers at the Christmas Tree Shops said the program helped her become more independent and more organized and that she likes to work because “it just makes me happy.”
A typical day, Locke said, starts with the students at the high school and then they are bussed to the mall for a morning meeting where they discuss what the day will look like. Then, it’s off to work for about 90 minutes in the morning and the afternoon. At the end of the day, students are evaluated on their time management skills, job skills, social skills and other characteristics an employer will look for in an employee.
Locke said there is a similar program in the Shenendehowa School District where they have a classroom established in the Clifton Country Mall.
“Being located in the mall has also been a benefit as we gain consistent exposure to members of the community who pass by on a daily basis and we look forward to increasing this community exposure through the activation of an in mall kiosk,” she said. “While all this is amazing, it is really the growth we have seen each day in our students that make this all worthwhile. The tangible skills they are developing and honing will certainly prove beneficial as they leave our program and enter the work place but so too will the intangible skills they are developing like customer service, colleague interaction and accountability.”
The district has placed students in Boscov’s, L.L. Bean, Christmas Tree Shops, Sports Zone and PCX Apparel, all businesses within the mall.
The new classroom is near the entrance to the movie theaters and mall manager Jeff Law said he and the business owners are “thrilled” to have the program.
“We really could not be more excited to have this program here at Colonie Center. To the students and staff I would say just take advantage of what is here, the businesses here,” he said. “We have such a great team here at the mall and they are always willing to lend a helping hand. We are so excited about working together in the future.”
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