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Gainesville High’s new PAES lab prepares special-education students for career success
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Cristie Langford, PAES lab coordinator, supervises Donovan Oliver while he matches up pipe fittings during an open house for a Practical Assessment Exploration System lab for special education students to become more self-sufficient and pursue various career paths at Gainesville High School on Thursday, Sept. 27, 2018. - photo by Austin Steele

Erin Folger will graduate from Gainesville High School in May, and she feels more ready than ever to meet the “real world.”

Folger, 20, is one of dozens of special-education students benefiting from a new learning lab at the high school that incorporates the Practical Assessment Exploration System, which helps identify students’ functional skill levels, career interests and aptitude for employment through five key study areas.

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Cristie Langford, PAES lab coordinator, speaks during an open house for a Practical Assessment Exploration System lab for special education students to become more self-sufficient and pursue various career paths at Gainesville High School on Thursday, Sept. 27, 2018. - photo by Austin Steele

Those areas include construction, where a student learns to work with tools; consumer service, which offers training in food preparation and housekeeping duties; processing and production, where students learn about design and assembly; computer technology, with students learning data entry and word processing; and business marketing, which offers clerical and money handling skills.

“It shows me about things to do at home,” Folger said, such as cooking, interpersonal skills or working with tools, as well as “things we’ll need in real life” to have a career.

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Donovan Oliver works on task requiring him to match up pipe fittings during an open house for a Practical Assessment Exploration System lab for special education students to become more self-sufficient and pursue various career paths at Gainesville High School on Thursday, Sept. 27, 2018. - photo by Austin Steele

Donovan Oliver, 19, who also plans to graduate in May, said he has already completed every level in the “processing and production” curriculum.

When asked if he felt prepared for a job, Oliver said confidently, “I believe so, yeah.”

Stacia Dillin, special education coordinator for grades 9-12, said these students can stay in school until age 22.

But what then? That’s where the learning lab comes in by helping connect these students with career possibilities and self-sufficient care.

“It’s for mildly intellectually disabled students and it’s focused on life skills,” Dillin said. “It’s really neat to see our kids because they light up. They’re able to do a lot of jobs.”

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Students prepare for an open house in the Practical Assessment Exploration System lab, a place where special education students learn to become more self-sufficient and pursue various career paths, at Gainesville High School on Thursday, Sept. 27, 2018. - photo by Austin Steele

The lab is the first of its kind in the Gainesville City School System to provide these students with knowledge and experience for career success, just as work-study and career-pathway curriculum does for the rest of the student body.

“It is not a classroom,” said Cristie Langford, the lab coordinator. “It is a job.”

In fact, the lab transforms the traditional classroom into a simulated work environment where students are referred to as employees as a way to teach them soft skills and help them develop a mentality for the working world.

Gainesville City Schools Superintendent Jeremy Williams said he implemented this kind of learning lab for special-education students while working in Union County, and he and leaders from Gainesville High visited a similar lab in a Gwinnett County school.

The lab is about taking care of every student, Williams said, and preparing them for life beyond the classroom.

“You’d be surprised quite a bit by some of the tasks they do that you would find very difficult to do yourself,” he told students’ parents during an open house for the lab on Thursday, Sept. 27.

“It gives us a chance to celebrate every child and show parents what doors are opening for (their children),” he added later. “I want (these students) to be able to provide for themselves.”

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