On The Job: The P.A.S.S. Program Gives ESE  Graduates Essential  Job Skills On The Job: The P.A.S.S. Program Gives ESE  Graduates Essential  Job Skills
  BY ALYSSA FISHER After a quiet ride, Jimmy Knapp and three other Cooper City High School students in crimson polo shirts hopped off... On The Job: The P.A.S.S. Program Gives ESE  Graduates Essential  Job Skills


Jonathon Siwek working at Winn-Dixie as part of the P.A.S.S. program. Photo Credit: GABI TABIB


After a quiet ride, Jimmy Knapp and three other Cooper City High School students in crimson polo shirts hopped off of a school bus in Dania Beach and prepared to begin their day at the Marriott. Before parting ways, they awaited instructions in the aquatic-themed lobby. Accompanied by Exceptional Student Education teacher Nicole Garcia, Knapp was ready to fulfill his duties vacuuming every floor of the hotel, an experience that might one day help him get a job.

Monday through Thursday, while the rest of CCHS is making the transition from first to second period, the nine students in the P.A.S.S. program leave school and go to a different workplace.  A part of the Exceptional Student Education (ESE) program, P.A.S.S., or Post-Graduate Alternatives for Secondary Students, provides vocational training or employment for those with special needs. These students have technically graduated from CCHS with a 24 credit special diploma, but are allowed to continue their education until they are 22.

“We are ultimately creating independence,” Garcia said, who, even though this is her first year working in a high school, has been an ESE educator for 13 years. “This is an experience we can’t recreate in the classroom.”

This term, the P.A.S.S. class, along with classroom assistants Teresa Bradley and Judith Riley, goes to TJ Maxx, Publix and Marshalls in addition to the Marriott, though Garcia believes the Marriott has the most opportunities for growing as an employee.

“There are so many jobs to learn that we could be here all year,” she said. “It’s different than Marshalls, where they only learn about retail. Going to all of these places gives them a variety of experience so they can decide what they want to do.”

Garcia’s job is to help the students make the transition to paid employment after high school. In the morning before embarking on their daily trip, she teaches them social skills for the work environment, such as how to dress appropriately. If someone does not come to school dressed in a red polo shirt and nice pants, they will not be allowed to work that day.

“The work experience gives them a leg up,” Garcia said. “They have training in many different areas.”

After reminding them of lessons such as “ladies first,” Garcia exits the elevator with Knapp and Andrew DiMauro as a Marriott employee sets them up with two vacuums. Accustomed to the job, the two boys each take a side of the hallway and began diligently vacuuming the patterned carpet. Garcia observes, prepared to instruct DiMauro not to bump the vacuum into doors, to pick up little pieces left behind or to slow down.

“Nothing is as beneficial as the unscripted social settings,” Garcia said. “You just can’t replicate these in the classroom. Andrew didn’t know that it wasn’t right to hit the doors with the vacuum because people might be sleeping. He learned this by doing.”

Garcia accompanies the students to workplaces that are known for hiring students after the P.A.S.S. program has been completed. Though, like everyone else, they have to apply for jobs and fill out applications. They are allowed to hold a paying job while they’re still in P.A.S.S. Job Coach Devon Georgia is responsible for finding paid employment for each student that is capable.

“I hit the pavement and find companies that are interested and bring the program to them,” Georgia said. “It feels good to get them a job and involved in the community.”

Georgia has helped 17 students get jobs, including Christina Weinke, who spends her time at the Marriott working at the café in the lobby. Changing the salt on the tables with ease, it’s clear she likes what she does. Knowing this, Georgia set her up with an opportunity at Longhorn Steakhouse, where she works every Saturday, Sunday and Monday morning.

“Sometimes they hate the places they visit in the program,” Georgia said. “I make sure they get to do what they like.”

At the Marriott, Weinke makes coffee and gives the customers bagels and muffins. It’s a similar environment to Longhorn, where she cuts vegetables and puts them into bags to be portioned. She likes to feel involved, which is why she prefers going to the Marriott to other workplaces.

“It’s hands-on at the Marriott,” Weinke said. “I can’t just sit around and do nothing. I always have to have something to do.”

On the other side of the lobby, Lauren Bandes doesn’t let her wheelchair get in the way of working as a greeter behind the front desk. Her job is to say hi and bye to all of the guests as they sweep in and out of the hotel.

“She’s not shy and very social,” ESE Classroom Assistant Laura Baker said. “She likes everyone and is very outgoing. This is the perfect job for her.”

Baker has been working with Bandes for four years now, and she considers her family. She can determine what Bandes wants just by eye contact.

“The best part is seeing them smile,” Baker said. “They do appreciate what we do for them.”

Georgia feels the same way, and it shows at the end of the workday when the bus stops at Winn-Dixie to pick up Jonathon Siwek. Since it was Siwek’s first week on the job, Georgia stayed with him to make sure everything went smoothly. Though after a while, he will begin to fade from the scene and give Siwek more independence.

“He’s a reflection of our program, so I make sure he’s on task,” Georgia said. “But Jonathon is really adjusting and doing a great job.”

As Siwek thoroughly disinfects the refrigerated section, the store director Paul Mark watches his first P.A.S.S. student in action. Since no two individuals are the same, Mark is still observing Siwek to see where in the store he fits best, whether he should continue cleaning the store, bag groceries or retrieve carts from the parking lot.

“I think the program is great,” he said. “It teaches self-reliance in this world. I have three people with disabilities working here, and I think it helps them feel proud and important.”

After putting away his supplies, Siwek heads to the front of Winn-Dixie with Georgia to punch out and receive his first paycheck.

“Devon is one of the best job coaches,” Garcia said. “He has the most employed students and trains other coaches. He is really good at what he does.”

As Siwek excitedly holds up his first paycheck for a picture, Garcia and Georgia can’t help but beam. This moment alone sums up what P.A.S.S. is all about.

“They need help,” Georgia said. “And we get to open the doors for them.”