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Opportunity to Reality: ESJH’s special education seniors learn on Reserve college campus

RESERVE — Career readiness and socialization are emphasized each Tuesday through Thursday as East St. John High School’s special education seniors experience a taste of college life at River Parishes Community College in Reserve.

Students with moderate to severe disabilities learn vocational skills and self-advocacy during campus visits, which began in August with the launch of the River Parishes Opportunity to Reality Initiative.

Special education paraprofessional Karen Duncan said six ESJH students joined the pilot program this year, each bringing their own dreams and aspirations.

Senior Mycal Mayes has his whole future mapped out, down to who he wants to marry and the street he’ll live on when he’s older.

On career day at the Reserve campus, Mayes dressed up in doctor scrubs with a stethoscope and shared his plans to work at Ochsner Health Center in Metairie after graduation.

Duncan said students enjoy hands-on activities that allow them to visually depict where they are now and where they hope to be in the future, whether that vision includes working in a hospital, retail store or meeting the love of their life.

Classroom instruction also includes an overview of jobs at various workplaces. This week, students explored job opportunities in grocery stores and in the restaurant industry.

Those pictured include, back row, from left, Mycal Mayes, Malik Dickerson, front row, Alexis Duhe, Celeste Rebstock and Camarika Buckhalter.

“We’re focusing on careers and getting them prepared to become what they want to be,” Duncan said. “It’s things like interviewing, what to wear and the basics of how to get a job. We’re talking to them about the responsibilities of each job. Some of them want to work in the clothing department at Walmart, but there are more things involved than just folding clothes.”

Held three times a week from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., campus visits are also a time for interaction with special education students from St. James Parish.

“I like the program, and I think it’s a good thing for them to have that socialization,” Duncan said. “That’s a big thing for them because I think that’s what they really like about it. With this, they have an opportunity to go to college. That’s so cool for them, and parents are so excited.”

Mayes said his favorite part of the program involves the campus experience, including walking down hallways and visiting the food truck for lunch.

RPCC Reserve campus dean Penelope Shumaker collaborated with school leaders in 2018 to set the stage for a successful pilot year.

Shumaker said the social aspect is just as important as classroom time, noting she’s seen special education students utilize the RPCC lounge and interact with students.

“We are a community college,” Shumaker said.

“We service industry by training their workforce, but we’re also here to serve the community. These students are just as big a part of the community as any of our other students will be. I think it’s really important we remember that.”

River Parishes Opportunity to Reality program is a partnership between the Reserve campus, St. John the Baptist Parish and St. James Parish public schools and Louisiana rehabilitative provider Opportunity Now.

Dr. Stacey Spies, special education director for St. John Public Schools, outlined her hopes for the initiative during the 2017-18 school year.

Through classroom instruction and job shadowing partnerships, Spies advocated breaking down barriers and stereotypes hindering special education students from becoming self-sufficient adults.