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School to work

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Mary Tester and her assistant teachers in the Transitions program at Waccamaw High School have developed a model class for the mentally and physically handicapped to live useful and productive lives.

Tester was named the recipient of the Outstanding Special Educator Award from the South Carolina Division of Career Development and Transition last fall. She will be a guest speaker at a conference in Myrtle Beach in February for the Council for Exceptional Children.

“There’s a big move to get students to work,” Tester said. “This is part of it.”

She has renamed the program “Transitions” this year to emphasize the movement from school to a job.

Most of Tester’s special needs students at Waccamaw are capable of learning how to do simple jobs like assembling pizza boxes, sweeping floors and gathering shopping carts from parking lots. “Putting them in a room is not going to work any more,” she said. “It’s better all the way around for them to be productive than sitting at home.”

While Tester’s students are capable, they need structure. They can grasp the “how” of things, but the “why” might as well be in a foreign language. Her students volunteer at Goodwill Industries in Murrells Inlet on Mondays and review tasks on the class iPad during the bus ride from school. No detail is taken for granted. The class could use another iPad, but Tester prefers real experience. “I put all my money in going out in the community,” she said. “That’s the most important thing because they’ve got to do it. It’s not the same as the iPad.”

Class members spend two days a week in the community, working on their soft skills. They have money they earned baking brownies, cookies, cupcakes and lemon squares in their class and selling them to fellow students. They are encouraged to buy things they need during these excursions.

As usual, they have a checklist when they approach the clerk:

1. Put items on counter.

2. Make eye contact with clerk.

3. Say hello.

The list carries them through the process as they pay and say thank you.

While Tester shows them how to say, “Hello!” and smile, students are more likely to say “hello”in a monotone and move to the next step. That’s fine, Tester says. Checking off the boxes is how progress is measured and proven.

Members of the class ate breakfast at Pawleys Island Bakery last week. They were allowed to pick what they wanted, but when several boys came to the table with cookies, muffins and soft drinks, Tester saw a teachable moment. “Sugar is not the best choice,” she advised them.

Tester is particularly focused on finding a part-time job for Nickolas Kraus, a student who will complete her program in May. He’s had an interview at a grocery store for a job rounding up shopping carts in the parking lot and works at DeRoMa’s and Massey’s pizza parlors and Goodwill. His task at Goodwill this week was to remove all garments with white tags from a long rack so they can be sent to another store. While other students work at a steady pace, Nick is locked in on the job. He will make a good employee, Tester said.

“The next step is getting students into real jobs,” she said. “They have a good work ethic, and attendance is good. They have somebody supporting them.”

In Nick’s case, Tester wants to get him settled so she can help him for a few months. His mother died last year and his father realizes that time is running short to find a job. They will all sit down in February and outline goals. Nick has risen to the occasion, she said.

Tester said the untimely death of her assistant of eight years, Mackie Altman, has set the program back as she trains new people, Eric Sparkman and Cathy McGee. “Mackie was great,” Tester said. “He would have gone out and helped me get those jobs. It’s a challenge this year.”

Tester’s students begin learning their real-life skills in a lab where they do mock interviews, get hired for jobs and receive real paychecks every two weeks. Money for the class comes from weekly bake sales. The students learn to shop for ingredients, follow a recipe step by step and bake. There have been some burned brownies along the way, but even that was educational, she said. More important is the chance for her students to interact with others in the school during the sales. After a day of smelling brownies baking, Waccamaw students are ready to buy when the doors open on Wednesdays. “We have kids lined up and down the hallway,” Tester said. “It’s huge. People who graduated from Waccamaw will see me in public and ask: ‘Do you still have those delicious cookies.’”

When a new federal policy stopped all food sales in schools last year, Tester’s program suffered.

“I wasn’t as concerned about the money as I was about the interaction that we lost,” she said. When the policy was altered this year to allow some sales, Waccamaw High principal David Hammel made Tester’s class a priority. “He knows how important it is,” she said.

Tester credits Georgetown County School Superintendent Randy Dozier, whose daughter was a special needs student, for the program’s success. “I couldn’t have done anything without Dr. Dozier,” she said. “He made sure I got out in the community. He knows exactly what it is. I wouldn’t have gotten off the ground without his support.”

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