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updated: 5/11/2012 9:46 AM

Pheasant Run gives special needs students a place to hone skills

District 303 using local businesses to give special needs students job skills

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  • St. Charles East High School student Sam Raymond helps set up the banquet room Thursday as special needs students get job experience working at Pheasant Run in St. Charles.

       St. Charles East High School student Sam Raymond helps set up the banquet room Thursday as special needs students get job experience working at Pheasant Run in St. Charles.
    Rick West | Staff Photographer

  • Tom Hausl celebrates a job well done after setting up the last banquet table as he and two other students from St. Charles East High School work their shift at Pheasant Run in St. Charles.

       Tom Hausl celebrates a job well done after setting up the last banquet table as he and two other students from St. Charles East High School work their shift at Pheasant Run in St. Charles.
    Rick West | Staff Photographer

 
 

There's more detail that goes into setting up a banquet room than the average person might think.

Every sugar container has its precise place on the table. Every salt shaker is meant to sit to the immediate right of the pepper. Each coffee cup must be inspected for cleanliness and held in a manner that keeps it that way until it is placed, in its specific spot on the table, handle out.

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The details provide the presentation that the high-level Pheasant Run Resort in St. Charles wants to provide to its customers.

But it's an unexpected group of St. Charles East High School students who ensure that level of detail. Sam Raymond, Grant Sturgeon, Tom Hausl and Nikita Chavez spend a couple hours at Pheasant Run, five days a week, as part of St. Charles Unit District 303's Community-Based Vocational Training program. The students have special needs but use the program to learn job skills that will help them find employment regardless of their disability.

The current economy makes that more of a challenge than ever before, Vocational Coordinator Donna Wisely said.

"Nobody is really hiring," Wisely said. "For a while, we were able to introduce the idea of job carving to employers. That hasn't gone away, but it's been harder to approach businesses with the idea."

Job carving involves tailoring a position to the abilities of the special needs student.

"If you tell me these are the 12 responsibilities of this position, I may have a student who can do six of those very well," Wisely said. "So we'd get businesses to have our student come in on a part-time basis and just do those six. The rest of the tasks would be absorbed by other employees, and our students may be able to develop the ability to do all 12 tasks eventually."

Job carving can result in real-world success. About a year ago, a local Walmart hired an alumnus of the district's vocational training program to be a greeter. The job started with saying hello to customers as they walked in. Once the student had that task down, Walmart added the placing of stickers on bags for customers coming in to return merchandise. After that, the student learned to restock that returned merchandise.

"All of our special needs students are capable and employable," Wisely said. "They just need the chance."

Pheasant Run doesn't pay the four students, but Wisely said students need to learn in an authentic work environment so they can succeed at paid jobs down the road.

It's not just the physical act of setting up a banquet room, or folding towels or inspecting rooms for damage and cleanliness.

"Our students need to learn the soft skills as well," Wisely said. "So that includes how to ask for help only when you really need it. It's coming to work on time. It's being polite, getting along with others and working on a team. Our students here learn how to accept constructive criticism and adapt to changes in their work environment, people they work with and the tasks they are doing."

Terry Robinson works on the corporate side of Pheasant Run. She said there's never a shortage of tasks for the students to perform. And while that provides for a great variety of skills for the students to learn, she's found the students to be optimal employees.

"When they do room inspections they are very detailed," Robinson said. "They don't miss anything. And because of that, they actually do it better than our regular staff."

The partnership is working so well that Wisely only wishes they could find more local businesses to welcome in the students. Many business owners or managers just assume they don't have any tasks a special needs student can perform, Wisely said.

"What we tell those businesses is that most basic work skills are transferable to any business," Wisely said. "You may be working with different sizes and shapes, but sorting, counting and many other tasks happen across all work environments. And we have job coaches who go along with the students to every job site. There's always something our kids can do for a business even if it's just picking up garbage. ... Whoever complains that a place is too clean?"

In the break room at Pheasant Run, the students enjoy a daily snack. At times, it's punctuated with a doughnut. But that's not why Tom Hausl and his student colleagues spend the break smiling and chatting with their job coaches.

"I like this job," Hausl said. "Good people."

Businesses interested in partnering with District 303 for the vocational program can contact Wisely at (630) 513-2202.

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