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Thursday, Mar 3, 2016

Berkshire Jr. /Sr. High School pilots updated Workforce Development Program to prepare students with individualized learning requirements for the working world

Berkshire Jr. /Sr. High School in Canaan finished the first full week of a revised version of its Workforce Development Program that will guarantee workforce readiness for students with an Individual Education Plan (IEP) through the Career Development and Occupational Studies (CDOS) credential. Created by the Department of Education, the credential recognizes that students need to be both college and career ready and shows employers that certified students have basic transferrable job skills.

Changes to the existing Workforce Development Program have made it so that students in both general and special education are now enrolled in a recognized program certified through New York State. For now, only students with an IEP can receive the CDOS credential, while their general education counterparts will receive high school credits based on how many work-based learning hours they complete while in the program.

The New York State certified program is a combination of two separate credentialing programs, General Education Work Experience (GEWEP), offered to students age 16 and older, and the Work Experience and Career Exploration Program (WECEP), designed for students ages 14-15. Staff have taken on the task of tailoring the program and carrying it out in a way that best fits Berkshire.


image“Through these two certified NYS programs, we are helping students to become college and career ready by focusing on the skill sets and credentials they need to graduate and be employable,” said Berkshire Union Free School District Superintendent Bruce Potter. “With this pilot program, we can ensure that all of our students in special education achieve the CDOS credential, when in the past, our students who were county placed would not necessarily have been able to achieve this credential.”

Twenty-two students currently follow the new schedule, which splits the school day evenly between Work-Based Learning and core classes and will certify students in special education with the CDOS credential after 216 hours of program participation.  The program is starting out with three work experience options on and off campus. These are led by Food Service Coordinator Jon Newcomer, Vending Coordinator Josh Pratt, and Agricultural Science Coordinator Bruce Wood, Sr.

A fresh take

“The reality is that our students struggle to sit for six and a half hours a day,” said Berkshire Jr. /Sr. High School Principal Mike Mitchell. “This gives them an alternative vehicle for education that considers their individual needs and what works.”

The New York State certified program addresses a need that Berkshire staff had seen in their students that often kept them from succeeding in school and work.

“Some of our students have zero interest in academic programming, and therefore, zero interest in their classes,” said Mitchell. “The goal of this new program is that they’ll be motivated to learn because what they’re learning in class will coincide with what they’re learning at work,” said Mitchell.

As Berkshire’s Workforce Development program continues to serve as a model for other residential schools in teaching workforce readiness, Mitchell hopes that schools will begin to embrace the concept of the 50/50 school to Work-Based Learning ratio.

“We’re starting to see these kinds of programs in Questar and community schools,” said Mitchell. “For 100% of our student population, making work-based learning a top priority is a must. They deserve the opportunity to obtain the vocational skills that will make them more employable.”

More than money

According to Mitchell, the new program is more than trying something new in Workforce Development at Berkshire. It’s reflecting on years of observing what engages their students and responding to the problem with a creative plan that might just solve the problem.

“It’s a paradigm shift in the way we educate our students,” said Mitchell. “We’re hopeful that every student at Berkshire is motivated to earn a high school diploma, but the reality is that’s not going to happen. Instead, we ask—what can they learn while they’re here with us that they can bring back to their communities and create positive change?”

After one week of the program, all 22 students are in full support.

“Every student here is motivated by money,” said Mitchell.  “As a public school, we need to be incredibly creative about how we educate our kids. We have to look outside the box. What we’ve found is that some of the most effective teaching happens outside of the classroom.” 

Although the roughly 80% of students on Berkshire’s campus who participate in Workforce Development see money as an incentive, it’s not the only source of motivation, or the most significant.

“On the surface, our students will say that they love the program because they get to make money,” said Work-Based Learning Coordinator Maria De Novio. “But the truth is, they really value work; it makes them feel good.”
It doesn’t take long for work to become more than money.

“When they’re helping to deliver a lamb on the farm, or cooking at the pizzeria and customers from the communityimage are telling them that the food is great, or in the vending program, when they get to interact with customers and hear people saying how polite they are—you can see it,”3 said De Novio. “On the surface, they say they’re motivated by money, but it’s more than that.”

Students are also motivated by each other. Coping with emotional difficulties and disabilities is not easy, especially when going it alone. If students want to remain in Workforce Development, they are required to maintain certain behavioral standards in school and in their personal lives. Staff have seen students helping their friends through moments of emotional outbursts and bad behavior.

“Students say things like, ‘hey don’t do that, if you want to stay in the program,’” said De Novio. “They’re checking and balancing each other, helping each other realize and resolve behavioral issues in the moment.”

Room to grow

Berkshire is optimistic for the updated program and its positive effects to gain traction among other residential schools locally and nationally. While participating students are on board and schools are starting to take note of Berkshire’s Workforce Development model, there is room to grow.

“I hope that we can offer other areas of vocational skills to our students in the future,” said Mitchell. “We have a 2,000 acre campus, which leaves us room for creativity.”

Many students express interests that extend beyond the currently offered workforce programs. Specifically, these are electrical, plumbing, carpentry, automotive, and grounds maintenance.

According to De Novio, Berkshire is already laying the ground work for these new campus programs.

“The focus of workforce readiness has always been for students without emotional regulation difficulties,” said De Novio. “Now we’re tweaking it so that our students with emotional disabilities can be successful. We’re doing something groundbreaking.”

—Sydney Lester


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