Like all students nearing the end of their years in high school, students in LCPS’s Exceptional Children’s classes wonder what will come next. Thanks to a program that connects them to more schooling at Lenoir Community College, the next step for these students can look a lot like the next step for their peers.
The GOALS program – Gaining Occupational and Life Skills – helps older EC students who are ready to leave LCPS high schools move into educational opportunities at LCC ultimately design to prepare them for the workforce.
“We work with the Exceptional Children’s Department to provide a bridge after public school to learning opportunities at the college as well as to employment,” Dustin Walston, who coordinates GOALS as part of his duties with the college’s Transitional & Career Studies program. “We teach soft skills, we teach employability skills, we teach career exploration as well as remediating math and reading, but everything is in the context of employment.”
The growth of the two-year programs speaks to its success. Four students enrolled in that first class four years ago. Fourteen enrolled in the most recent class this past August.
LCPS and the state’s Vocational Rehabilitation Services have a hand in completing the arc of the college program, with the district’s EC Department identifying students who would be a good fit for GOALS and Vocational Rehabilitation providing more specific jobs coaching after the students’ two years.
The program isn’t unique, but the partnership could be, according to Walston. “There are a few around the state, but I’m not sure there is another one that has the partnership we have with the local schools.”
At a recent informational meeting organized by LCPS for parents of its older EC students, mostly juniors and seniors, Walston explained how GOALS works and where it leads. Four members of this year’s graduating class stood in front of the audience to speak about the program, something they would have been hesitant to do before entering GOALS, Walston noted.
“One of the biggest things we notice is the level of maturity they develop,” he said. “We teach them critical thinking, how to be good decision makers, how to weigh the costs. We see a huge increase in their maturity level because we do teach them how to be independent. They have more responsibility, which I think is also good for their future.”
In terms of involvement, his students essentially become college students, participating in their own SGA and in campus events. “They’re fully integrated into the college, which is good for them,” Walston said.
“This is a whole new world for these kids,” said Julie Hill, assistant director of LCPS’s Exceptional Children’s Department. “They get excited. They are going to college. When their cohort graduates and are talking about going to college, they’re going to college too. That’s exciting for them and good for their self-esteem.”
What they learn are job skills both general and specific, as well as so-called “soft skills” like teamwork and communication. After completing the two-year program, students graduate and are given a transcript that’s certified by Vocational Rehabilitation that shows the competencies they’ve earned in GOALS. They also get additional help finding employment from Vocational Rehabilitation and will soon have the option of moving into additional training at LCC.
“We’re also working now to build in some career pathways for these students once they’re done with our two-year program. Two we’re looking at starting in the fall are horticulture and commercial cleaning,” Walston said. “When they leave us, they’re either ready to explore further educational opportunities or to go to work.”
This time of year, though, Walston and Hill are thinking as much about beginning as endings. It’s important for EC students moving out of high school, whether as graduates or as completers, to move as soon as possible into another phase as productive.
“We want to target a population of students that are not so far removed from an educational setting that they can’t make learning gains,” Walston said. “With students with disabilities, the longer that gap is between public school and further training the harder it is for those students to make progress. LCPS helps make student aware of the program.”
It’s a role the school district welcomes. “I know in my heart this is a very good program for these kids,” Hill said.
More information about GOALS can be obtained by contacting Walston at 252-233-6861 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.