School offers foothold in workforce

Older students with learning disabilities get on-site training that hopefully ends with a placement.

By ELISABETH DYER, Times Staff Writer
Published December 7, 2007


Monday mornings can't come soon enough for Ashley Mercado.

Since she was hired at the Public Defender's Office in September she couldn't be happier.

"I'm always smiling so much," said Mercado, 24. "I love coming to work."

And her co-workers love to see her.

Mercado is one of the first students to make the leap onto the payroll from a new school that helps those 18 and older with learning disabilities.

Last year the defender's office partnered with the Tampa Transitional School of Excellence, a charter school that connects the dots for people with learning disabilities by combining job training, life skills and community resources.

Students learn the ropes through job-site training at several businesses, including in the Public Defender's Office.

"Initially we thought it would be a one-sided relationship," said public defender Julianne Holt. She thought her staff would help about a dozen students at a time. "But it quickly became reciprocal."

- - -

Today, students scan closed files into computers to help the defender's office become paperless. Since January they've converted more than 10,000 pages into images. Now, searching for a case can take a couple of keystrokes. Paper files are then destroyed. Rows and rows of documents in the file room are disappearing, freeing up space.

But the biggest plus, say employees, is student enthusiasm.

"They're always so excited to be here," said Daniel Rayson, human resources director. "As for their disabilities, we just don't see that anymore."

Students wear official badges and are overseen by a job coach. They aren't paid, unless, like Mercado, they complete training and are offered a job.

Office managers post duties for students in a break room and a coach matches tasks to student abilities.

On the fifth floor, 18-year-old Lora Douglas pulls an attorney's files for the next day's felony hearings.

On the eighth floor, Jonathan Temaul, 19, helps in the mail room.

Students work in the mornings and return to the school in the afternoon where they learn to fill out online applications, use HARTline buses and cook for themselves, most often with a microwave oven. They learn what to say and what not to say at a job interview.

"We help them celebrate their gifts and compensate for their deficits," said Crisha Scolaro, a founder and community liaison for the school. "We hold their hand a little bit longer."

- - -

A major part of preparing students for the workforce is helping them believe in themselves.

To build confidence, students at school wrote things they thought they couldn't do on slips of paper and buried them with a New Orleans-style funeral.

Scolaro was inspired to start the school when her son, Anthony, 22, graduated from high school. After attending the transitional school, he now has a cashier position at Publix.

Scolaro sees the change in students' confidence.

Maggie Gambrell, 18, barely talked when she first came to the Public Defender's Office. Last weekshe chatted with co-workers in a break room.

Among family photos on Mercado's desk is one of her graduation from Leto High School when she was 21. With the money she earns assembling files, making copies and scanning documents, she plans to buy a laptop and eventually get her own apartment.

Students also learn on-the-job skills at other training sites, including TECO Energy's copy rooms, Publix or Macy's in University Mall. Four new partnerships are in the works with businesses.

At the school site at 3916 E Hillsborough Ave., students can work in a child care center, a kitchen outfitted by Outback Steakhouse or a training center for shipping and receiving.

The seven-room school for up to 100 students opened in 2006 and is an extension of the Academies for Educational Excellence Inc., which includes Hope Preparatory Academy, Quest Middle School and Pepin Academy. It is funded by Hillsborough County schools but run independently.

Students come from Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties. There is no tuition. Students need only have been diagnosed with a learning disability or learning-related disability and, for the transitional school, have a desire to work. They need not attend the academies before enrolling in the transitional school.

To apply, download an application from www.theacademies.us or call 231-4893.

Elisabeth Dyer can be reached at edyer@sptimes.com or 813 226-3321.