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Special-needs students gain experience outside of the classroom through school program
North Hall Middle’s Justin Rider cleans the windows at Weezie’s Kitchen Wednesday morning as he joins several other students on their weekly field trip to get some actual work experience on the topics they’re learning in class.

Every Wednesday morning, five students with special needs board the school bus and prepare to go to work at various local businesses.

Before heading to their jobs, the North Hall Middle School students check to make sure they’re properly dressed, wearing their name tags and, above all, have a good attitude.

But this isn’t just a typical work release program. And these students aren’t just earning; they’re learning.

The program, which started five years ago, gives kids a chance to practice the academic and social skills they’ve learned in class in a real-world setting.

The students work for an hour a week at Weezie’s Kitchen, True Love Celebrations and Aunt Fayes Attic in North Hall County. All the businesses are located next door to each other in a shopping center.

Just like in the real world, the students filled out an application and interviewed with their teachers to see at which business they might be best suited to work.

"Before they even got their jobs, they had to write what they thought their strengths were and weaknesses," said Lisa Reed, special education teacher at North Hall Middle School. "Then they had to figure out what they thought the jobs would require. Then they had to decide what they thought they’d be best at."

She said students sometimes start their jobs at one business and find out that maybe they’re not the best fit.

One student was excited to get a job at True Love, a bakery, and found he couldn’t help but sample the frosting. He had to try another job.

The students know that the pressure is on to do well at their jobs. If they don’t follow the rules and do as their bosses tell them, they’ll be fired by their teacher. It doesn’t happen often.

Reed said the most difficult part of the program is to find businesses willing to let the students come in and help. She said she couldn’t thank the three women who allow the students into their businesses enough.

Peggy Truelove, owner of True Love Celebrations, said the kids are very helpful while they work their jobs and have a way of touching hearts.

The specific jobs are tailored to the individual student’s abilities. One student may work the cash register while another sorts items on a shelf.

Reed said she enjoys watching the students encourage each other while they work. They’ll often remind each other about the proper way of doing things.

Joe Wallace, an eighth-grade student, said he likes his job at Weezie’s Kitchen. He and fellow eighth-grader Justin Rider help out by wiping down tables and windows and occasionally manning the cash register.

"I believe that working is a part of having life experiences," Joe said. "When you begin your life as a worker you influence yourself and other people."

Joe said the thing he likes the most about his job is meeting the people who eat at the restaurant. He said it makes him feel good to know that people are eating on clean tables because of him.

Justin said he enjoys the responsibility that comes with his job.

"I learn, like, skills to use for our jobs," Justin said. "It helps me get ready to do a job, so that I can do something that I didn’t know."

At the end of the work shift the students have to make sure they board the bus at exactly 11:30 a.m.

Reed said she stresses how important it is to get to where they are supposed to be at the right time, because in the real world if they missed the bus they’d have to wait for the next one or find another way home.

When they get back to school, Reed hands them a "paycheck" for $5. The students learn another real-life skill — how to save their money and balance a checkbook.

Reed said the jobs help make lessons such as math and language arts more real to the students.

But the most important thing the work provides is experience interacting with people in the community.

"We try to give them as much experience as possible to teach them as much independence as we can," Reed said. "So that’s really our focus, as much as we can teach them to be on their own, that’s the best we can do for them."

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