How many high school classes can teach students how to sew on a zipper, build a shelf and balance a checkbook in the same curriculum?

None.

But Mitchell School District Special Education Director Tracy Christensen saw a need for students who completed high school and received an Individualized Education Program, but needed a few more life skills as they transitioned into adulthood. She even had a name picked out — Program for Adult Community Transition.

The idea was jolted to life when Vocational Rehabilitation Services of South Dakota provided grants to Mitchell and several other districts to create similar programs for young adults.

It allowed PACT to launch and complete its first year for students ages 18 to 21 at Mitchell Career and Technical Education Academy, providing an alternative to LifeQuest. Six students learned a curriculum based on academics, employment, independent living skills, leisure, community participation, job shadowing and adult services.

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“My goal is to transition them into independent living and competitive employment,” PACT teacher Cindy Bierman said. “... This is my fifth year with these kids and they’re still learning. It takes a lot of repetition for some of these kids. I think it’s gone well. Are there things I’m going to change next year? Yes, there’s a learning curve.”

The hope of the program is to provide independent living skills, while learning a variety of life skills through a PAES lab — which costs between $30,000-$37,000 — can offer a competitive advantage and eliminate the stigma of hiring someone with autism or a cognitive disability upon entering the workforce.

“There’s so many things in that PAES lab they can learn how to do — there’s units on learning how to use a cash register and food-related jobs,” PACT paraprofessional Angie Putnam said. “That can open a lot of doors for students if they realize, ‘This is something I enjoy doing and I’m good at.’ Maybe it’s something they can apply to their skills when they go out to find a full-time job.”

Vocational Rehabilitation Services also has a program called Project Skills, in which the district hires people from Career Connections to attend jobs with students. The job coach attends work with the students full-time at first and slowly weans off as they become acclimated to the job and environment.

Jessica Sehnert, who works with the students weekly through Vocational Rehabilitation Services, says it may take an employer a little extra time to teach job duties and tasks, but they are valuable employees.

“There are some employers still in town with the mindset that people with disabilities can’t work,” Sehnert said. “Our goal is to go in and show that there are valuable skills that they can bring to the table. Showing up is probably one of the best qualities we see with people with disabilities because they have the desire to work.”

Retention of skills is the biggest obstacle of the course, according to Bierman and Sehnert. Sometimes it takes multiple lessons to learn a specific task, but employers are often more interested in soft skills such as attitude, attendance, appearance, ambition and accountability.

“Eighty-five percent of what an employer looks for in an interview is soft skills,” Bierman said. “What you know is going to get you the interview, but what you can do or how you present yourself is going to get you the job.”

Building on a foundation

As PACT transitions into its second year, the lab is expected to be a bit more crowded, not just due to more students from Mitchell , but because the district is opening the program to students from towns in the surrounding area.

There are no restrictions on where students can come from, as long as they can find transportation to MCTEA on a daily basis. It also has the opportunity to provide surrounding towns with a program it may not have otherwise had access to.

“I feel that the students have gained skills in the areas that were targeted. We anticipate that the 2021-2022 school year will open the door to more community activities,” Christensen said. “... Our hope is that more students in surrounding communities will consider the program as an additional option after high school. We feel PACT offers unique experiences and students will gain skills that benefit each as they prepare for their future.”

Bierman and Putnam both acknowledged the year went smoothly considering both were in a new environment and operating during a pandemic, but they would make small tweaks for Year Two.

“We just approached everything like we would see how everything goes with this and figure things out as we go,” Putnam said. “Cindy had a great schedule every day, as far as everything students were going to get done and that’s part of what a teacher does.”