Early in August, Lodi Unified School District was chosen out of five districts to test a statewide pilot program focused on preparing special education students to enter the workforce after graduating from high school.

“This is really what we’re calling a historic pilot between the California Department of Education and the Department of Rehabilitation,” Liz Zastrow, LUSD special education program specialist, said on Wednesday. “To get state agencies to agree to this, that’s really historic.”

According to Zastrow, the pilot will bring five programs that provide workplace readiness services to students with special needs — WorkAbility, California Promise, Transition Partnership Program, a paid internship program and California Career Innovation — together under one umbrella program.

“We’ve combined all those programs from all those funding sources into what we’re calling ‘Lodi Career Connections,’ ” Zastrow said. “Our goal is to stay as student-focused as we can and to help parents navigate those programs.”

By combining the five programs into one, Jonathan Martin, administrative director for the district’s special education department, hopes that it will be easier for the programs to obtain funding and help prepare students to find gainful employment after high school.

“Before we had this pilot, we had a lot of bureaucracy whereas now, everything is in one program,” Martin said. “It’s exciting because those barriers are gone, so we can focus on transitioning those students from school to the workplace. Ultimately, that’s our goal: To get them employed.”

During the three-year pilot program, special education students will learn to develop resumes, track their progress, create budgets and more, all with online portfolios they will be able to access for three years after graduation.

“It’s really a great tool they can do on their own, that they feel comfortable with,” Zastrow said.

Using person-centered planning, Zastrow said students can explore different jobs they might want to pursue based on their interests and in student-led meetings, they will learn to advocate for themselves, explain their disabilities to potential employers and outline what strategies and accommodations they might need to succeed in the workplace.

“We have about 1,200 students (in the program) and this year, we’re hoping that 600 will become ‘potentially eligible,’ — working directly with the Department of Rehabilitation,” Zastrow said. “This month, we’re training teachers, and they’re really receptive to it. They’re learning something new.”

Paid work experience will be another major aspect of the pilot program, Zastrow said, with students making $12 per hour beginning January 2019, mostly paid for by DOR.

During the 2017-18 school year, Martin said the district was able to help 429 students find jobs in restaurants, grocery stores and other local business, and he hopes that the pilot program will help even more students make a livable wage.

“I think it’s really the next statewide transition,” Martin said. “We’re the pilot for the entire state.”

Over the next three years, DOR and CDE will examine what aspects of the pilot program are successful and what areas need improvement, Martin said, before rolling out similar programs throughout the rest of the state.

With a large number of people with disabilities either not employed or making below minimum wage, Martin said, he also wants to help parents understand the attitude change toward helping them find gainful employment and how this pilot program will play a role in making that goal a reality.

“Making the shift to getting students competitively employed, it’s really blowing the minds of these parents,” Martin said.

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