Transition program presentation

DeForest Area School District’s Melissa Volz and Kate Laufenberg discussed the district’s transition program for students with disabilities during last week’s DeForest Windsor Area Chamber of Commerce luncheon.

Employers seeking reliable, enthusiastic individuals to fill jobs should contemplate hiring local students with disabilities, according to two area teachers.

During a presentation at the DeForest Windsor Area Chamber of Commerce’s Feb. 4 luncheon, Melissa Volz and Kate Laufenberg, who both work with students with disabilities at DeForest Area High School, advocated for local businesses to consider hiring their students. The duo talked about the DeForest Area School District’s transition program, potential tax benefits for employers and training opportunities for students on-site.

The district’s transition program, headed by Volz, works with young adults ages 18-21 with disabilities to prepare them to live as independently as possible and obtain employment. According to Volz, the Department of Public Instruction allows students with disabilities to remain in school until age 21. However, in order to expose the students to different situations outside of a school setting, the transition program is based out of Lord of Love Lutheran Church in DeForest.

Volz said the group spends a lot of time out in the community. They go to movies and do shopping, learn recreation skills and cook in a full kitchen. Additionally, students in the transition program and special education program at the high school spend time volunteering at places like the DeForest Area Public Library, Lord of Love Lutheran Church, St. Olaf Catholic Church and Sage Meadow.

One of the teachers’ goals is to prepare students for life after high school and the transition program. By volunteering, students can try out different jobs and practice social skills. According to Laufenberg, staff also works with students on both “soft” skills, such as getting along with co-workers and talking with employers if a question arises, and “hard” vocational skills, like interview techniques and filling out job applications.

Additionally, Volz said teachers encourage students’ self-determination and help them see what their strengths and interests are.

“As we prepare them for adulthood, we want them to be able to determine what they want to do with their lives, be able to communicate that and feel confident in the decisions they’re making,” Volz said.

The transition program partners with local businesses to find students long-term, paid employment. A team of job coaches work with students and employers to pinpoint jobs that will be a good fit for both parties. Volz said at the beginning, a job coach would discuss with a business owner what they’re looking for and how the operation runs. After that, the coaches help train and support the student in their role.

According to Volz, the amount of job coaching a student receives varies based on their needs.

“For some students, that might mean we’re going to be there with them the majority of the time,” Volz said. “For others, we may just send an email once a month and ask how things are going. It’s really dependent on the student and the job.”

Regardless, the transition program staff communicates with employers “every step of the way” to ensure the connection is successful, according to Volz. LuAnn Leggett, DeForest’s deputy administrator/village clerk, attested that claim, praising Volz’s team. Leggett said after describing the work to the job coaches, those individuals help explain things to the student and make sure they prosper.

Leggett, who said she’s hired three students with disabilities to work for the village, encouraged others to do the same.

“The work that they did was excellent quality and we achieved a process that we’d normally probably still be working on and they got it done in less time,” Leggett said. “It’s a win-win for the community. It’s a win for the business; it’s a win for the student.”

Ben O’Neill, owner of Jump Around Gymnastics, also gave a testimonial about employing transition program students. His gym has had two students on staff for over two years. The individuals clean the space three days a week, according to O’Neill, who said their consistency is “as good, or better,” than other staffers.

O’Neill also called the program’s job coaches “really amazing, encouraging people that help everybody succeed.”

Several transition program students who have secured jobs in the area at places like the Walgreens Distribution Center, Neesvig’s and Kwik Trip described their duties to the crowd during the chamber presentation last week. They have responsibilities ranging from logging returned items and labeling materials to stocking shelves and shredding paper.

According to Volz, there are various benefits to hiring people with disabilities, such as reliability and high retention rates. Additionally, employers may qualify for the Work Opportunity Tax Credit, which ranges from $1,200 to $9,600 depending on the employee hired and length of employment.

Businesses may also be eligible for the Disabled Access Credit or Barrier Removal Tax Reduction – both of which relate to providing better access for persons with disabilities. For example, a company that adapts existing buildings to include a ramp or those that provide materials for people with hearing or vision disabilities may qualify.

Those interested in learning more about the transition program or employing one of the students should contact Volz at (608) 842-6684.

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